November 29, 2017 | By Sara McElmurry

As International Enrollment Dips, Midwest College Towns Should Double-Down on Welcoming Foreign Students

As recently as 2015, Iowa City made national headlines for being the “town where bubble tea shops outnumber Starbucks.” The media chronicled the changes—culturally challenging yet demographically and economically necessary—associated with the growing number of international students enrolling at the University of Iowa. In 2015, 1 in 10 Hawkeyes was from China.

Two years later, Iowa City is again making national news, but for a different reason: The University is now leading a disturbing drop in foreign students coming to study in the United States.

Iowa’s international student enrollment has plummeted 13 percent; across the country, numbers are down seven percent. A recent survey tells us why: Students are concerned about the social and political environment in the United States, feel unwelcomed, and fear for their physical safety.

College towns across the Midwest have an especially urgent call to action around welcoming international students and other newcomers: 9 of the top 20 US universities with the largest Chinese student populations are Big Ten schools. Students from other nations, like India and Mexico, bolster enrollment at other regional schools.

The White House’s travel bans, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and “America First” platform reflect poorly on our values as a country. They are also affecting universities’ bottom lines—and compromising local economies in the process. International students’ out-of-state tuition supports the education of their in-state classmates and pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into local economies.

To be fair, even before the Trump administration, universities and local communities were already paying a price for the shortcomings of our country’s immigration system. Under current law, international students are able to study in the US under an F-1 visa, but there are limited means to stay here after graduation. The odds of securing an employer-sponsored H-1B visa are slim. In 2017, the government received 199,000 applications for 85,000 visas, which are awarded via lottery.

Most international students put their US-minted diploma to work elsewhere, making Midwestern college towns net exporters of global talent—and at great cost. A 2016 study from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that the Midwest would gain $3.2 billion in income and $123 million in state income tax by keeping foreign-born students in local work forces.

But now, the challenges of allowing international students to stay in the US are eclipsed by the urgency of convincing them to come in the first place.

A pre-election study found that 60 percent of 40,000 students surveyed in 118 countries said they would be less likely to pursue study in the United States if Trump were elected president. Iowa’s 13 percent dip in international enrollment may prove to be an unfortunate bellwether of larger drops to come across the region and nation.

The growing notion that the US is not welcoming complicates its ability to compete in an increasingly crowded field of countries vying for global talent. Students will opt to study where they will feel welcomed while they’re in school—and can stay to build a career after they graduate. Canada, Ireland, and Chile actively court foreign-born entrepreneurs, students included, with financial incentives and slots in elite business incubators. The United States does not even offer them a visa.

As the federal government seems intent on restricting immigration, universities, college towns, and regional cities must get to the work of welcoming.

Iowa City has become part of the “Welcoming America” network and Des Moines is actively recruiting international talent. Chicago and Michigan have built innovative programs that employ foreign-born entrepreneurs through university-based incubators.

These programs offer a promising blueprint to Congress to update our immigration system. But Midwestern values of welcoming and tolerance to attract international students are perhaps most urgent to scale across the country. Our universities and local economies depend on it. 

This article ran in The Daily Iowan: Guest Opinion: Declining international enrollment should raise red flags

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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