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Indian and other international students scared of studying in Trump's America

Nearly 40 per cent of U.S. colleges is seeing declines in applications from international students (Source: Wikimedia Commons) Photograph: (Others)

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Jun 09, 2017, 12.25 PM (IST) Madhumita Saha

This is June and about time that students from all over the world will fly to the US for higher studies. This year, however, there is a palpable sense of trepidation among students as the President of the US has come out in the open proposing much stricter immigration policy. In the recently held US Embassy's Annual Visa Day at New Delhi, the Consul General George Hogeman admitted, "Security is our number one priority when adjudicating visas...We will not issue a visa to anyone who we think is a threat to people of the US."

It is not the students alone who are anxious about the changing political climate in the US, the universities have also come forth expressing concern at the falling rate of international students seeking admission in their institutions. The fall semester is scheduled to start from mid-August to early September. Universities in the US already know how many international students are enrolling for the upcoming year. And the enrollment figures staring at them on their face is making them scared. 

As much as the world tend to think that international students covet degrees from American universities, it is equally true that these institutions of higher learning actively pursue potential students from all over the world. 

It is not the students alone who are anxious about the changing political climate in the US, the universities have also come forth expressing concern at the falling rate of international students seeking admission in their institutions
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In the recession-hit US where funds for higher education is fast drying up, international students bring a huge amount of money to the universities. For instance, California state colleges collect an average of $28,000 per year from state residents for tuition and living costs. But they receive nearly twice as much from non-residents. The fact that international students who self-finance their college education pay twice the amount an American citizen pays is true for all state-run educational institutions in the US. 

In the last year alone, Chinese students contributed $11 billion to the U.S. economy, while Indian students contributed another $5 billion.

Beyond the educational campuses, the US subsequently benefits from the skill, expertise and knowledge of these students. Recent statistics, however, reveal that this mutually beneficial relationship is under threat as increasing number of foreign students is showing disinterest in studying in the US.

A recent article in Inside Higher Ed shows that nearly 40 per cent of U.S. colleges is seeing declines in applications from international students. International student recruitment professionals, who play a decisive role in bringing foreign students to the US universities, reports that prospective students and their families are showing "a great deal of concern" about visas. More importantly, they are worried whether, with the election of President Trump, the US has developed a less-welcoming climate for foreign nationals.

It is not the students or parents alone who has expressed concerns about the changing political climate in the US. International educators teaching there have reportedly felt that “that the political discourse surrounding foreign nationals in the U.S. leading up to the November 2016 U.S. presidential election could be damaging to international student recruitment efforts.”

In response to the concerns expressed by the international teaching community, a survey was conducted among 250 American colleges and universities. Thirty-eight per cent of institutions responding to the survey reported a decline in their total number of international applications across both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

The highest reported declines involved applications from the Middle East. Thirty-nine percent of universities reported declines in undergraduate applications from the Middle East, while 31 per cent reported declines in graduate applications. Following Trump's executive order, which banned nationals of six countries from the Middle East and Africa, it is easy to understand that number of students coming to the US from Iran will fall drastically. Incidentally, Iran still holds 11th position in terms of numbers of students it supplies to the US.

Thirty-eight per cent of institutions responding to the survey reported a decline in their total number of international applications across both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
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The survey reveals a significant drop in applications from China and India. The two countries, together, account for nearly half of all international students in the US. A quarter of universities responding to the survey reported declines in undergraduate applications from China, and 32 per cent reported declines in Chinese graduate applications. As for India, 26 per cent reported declines in undergraduate applications from the country, and 15 per cent reported declines in graduate applications.

Portland State University happens to be one of worst affected academic institution in the US. The University reports a 27 per cent drop in the number of Indian students applying to its graduate programs for the fall. Most of the Indian applicants to the University are looking to attend computer science or engineering programmes.

Wim Wiewel, Portland State’s president admitted that "...the rhetoric and actual executive orders are definitely having a chilling effect on decisions by current applicants/admitted students, and by extension are likely to affect future applicants as well.” Wiewel is, however, hopeful that if nothing "too bad happens in the future", the American universities will recover from the present slump. But even he found it difficult to deny that the world is watching how the US behaves.

Though universities participating in the survey have pointed out that the demonetisation incident in India did contribute to some extent in the slump of students making their way to the US, there is indeed a great deal of anxiety among Indian students about job opportunities in the US. 

One of the main reasons that international students look up to the US as an academic destination is because they want to work there. Having a degree from an academic institution in the US helps in getting a job in the country and, therefore, getting an H1B visa. Getting an H1B visa is the first step towards the goal of getting US citizenship. During his travels through India, Wiewel heard concerns from students about possible changes to the H-1B skilled worker visa programme. As the majority of students from India take a huge amount of loans to study in the US, the diminishing prospect of getting an H1B visa deters them to travel to the country.

This apprehension is clearly articulated by John J. Wood, the senior associate vice provost for international education at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Wood said, “A lot of the master’s students coming from India are ultimately hoping to get on the job market here through OPT and eventually H-1B”. Wood is here referring first to the optional practical training program, which allows international students to work for one to three years on their student visas after graduation. “There’s a lot of fear and anxiety about potential changes to H-1B and/or OPT that would limit their opportunities. Making the decision to invest in a master’s program when the uncertainty on the other end is there is an issue for a lot of students in India.”

The racial tension erupting in the country is further fueling tension among Indian students who initially dreamed of getting a degree from the US
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The racial tension erupting in the country is further fueling tension among Indian students who initially dreamed of getting a degree from the US. Students are now more concerned about security issues. The recent shooting of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian national at a bar in Olathe, Kansas won't help. The FBI is investigating it as a hate crime. The gunman reportedly yelled “get out of my country” before opening fire, according to The Washington Post. A Sikh man originally from India who was wounded in a separate shooting in Kent, Washington, a little more than a week later similarly reported that he was told by the shooter to "go back to your own country," according to The Seattle Times.

“Those events affect us, whether we like it or not,” said Ahmad Ezzeddine, the associate vice president for educational outreach and international programs, at Wayne State University, where international applications are down, with the steepest drops in engineering. “The impact is not just going to be on Indian nationals. It could impact other students from other countries who may now be concerned about coming.”

University administrators fear that the worst is yet to come. If the immigration policies become tighter through the end of 2017, the apprehension is “the real hit is going to be next year.” Nicole Tami, the executive director of global education initiatives at the University of New Mexico sums it up when she says, “If that general kind of blanket attitude toward immigrants and international visitors continues, be they students or scholars, or professionals who come to work, I think people who have other opportunities -- and many do -- will go elsewhere, and there will be other countries that strategically benefit and profit from this current kind of climate,” she said.

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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