Editor’s note: Steve Rao is a senior council member and former mayor pro tem of Morrisville, NC, and a board member of New American Economy.
MORRISVILLE – Last week, international students got some good news: they’ll be allowed to remain in the country and study remotely using their existing visas even if the pandemic shuts down their campuses. That might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s actually a major U-turn from the Trump administration, which wanted to force foreign-born students to leave the country within 10 days if in-person classes were canceled.
The fact that North Carolina’s 21,954 international students can now continue their studies is a boon for all of us: those foreign-born students inject $722.3 million a year into our state’s economy, supporting over 9,000 jobs and fueling the economic revival we so urgently need.
And yet, the Trump administration has already done great damage to our reputation as the world’s go-to destination for international students. According to New American Economy, America’s share of the world’s international student population slipped almost 10% between 2015 and 2017. The U.S. share of the world’s international student population dropped from 27.4 percent to 19.4 percent in 2016. And in a recent survey of 500 U.S. higher education institutions, at least half said both the current social and political environment, and “feeling unwelcome in the United States” had contributed to the decline.
If we don’t turn things around, we’ll pay a hefty economic price. Nationally, international students contribute $39 billion a year to the U.S. economy, supporting more than 455,000 American jobs. International students also make college more affordable for American students: though they make up just 4.6% of the student population, international students pay 28% of all college tuition.
Many international students specialize in technical and scientific areas and go on to become the innovators and skilled workers our employers need to drive growth and job creation for everyone. According to the World Bank, for every 100 international students who receive science or engineering PhDs, the United States generates 62 new patents. By making life difficult for international students, suspending access to employment visas, and threatening to revoke temporary training programs for recent graduates, the Trump administration is stifling innovation and directly hurting our economy.
In fact, nearly two-thirds of prospective international students now say that reduced employment opportunities make them less likely to study in the United States. Increasingly, according to Not Coming to America, a new report from NAE, the world’s smartest young students are opting to study in places like Europe, Canada, or Australia, where they’re welcomed with open arms. In Canada, for instance, international students can work freely during their school year and academic breaks, and automatically qualify for a three-year work visa after graduating. Countries such as Germany and France, meanwhile, are investing millions of dollars in services for foreign students, and also offer college classes in English for students who don’t speak the local language.
By shutting the door to international students and skilled immigrants, we’re giving up not just their own economic contributions, but those of their future children. Some 45% of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, and according to the National Academy of Sciences the hard-working children and grandchildren of immigrants generate $254.3 billion in net benefits each year for state and local governments.
My own experience speaks to that. My parents came to the United States from India as skilled workers in the 1960s. My father was a surgeon who brought our family to West Virginia because he believed he could do the most good there. My wife’s parents followed a similar route. They are Indian immigrants who became military physicians, served our country all over the world, and finally retired as colonels in the U.S. Air Force.
I was raised to be proud of my Indian heritage — after all, my father would remind me, my great grandfather, Dr. U. Rama Rau, had been a prominent politician who left the Parliament to join Mahatma Gandhi’s independence movement, which freed India from British Imperial rule. But my parents wanted me to be equally proud of my status as an American citizen, and my birth country’s grand dream of personal freedom and opportunity. It’s why I entered public service in 2011, becoming the first Asian-American elected to public office in North Carolina.
As a public servant, I’ve seen immigrants doing amazing things for our community, and driving the innovation and job creation we need. As anyone who lives in the Research Triangle knows, the incredible work done in our universities creates prosperity for all of us — and much of that vital work is conducted by foreign-born researchers.
To keep attracting those young people, we need to welcome them and make it easy for them to both study here and work here after they graduate. The Trump administration’s U-turn on international students is a small step in the right direction — but much more is needed to ensure that we remain the destination of choice for the innovators and job creators of tomorrow.