My late father used to call particularly bad decisions ‘prismatic mistakes’, by which he meant they were wrong from every angle.
We can only call DHS’s July 6 decision about foreign students and online coursework a prismatic blunder. It’s hard to see a way in which the U.S. benefits from sending international students home if they happen to attend an institution that, in response to current circumstances, only offers online classes.
The DHS notice reminds us that due to the pandemic, temporary accommodation was provided to academic institutions and international students so they could pursue their studies through online coursework. The notice goes on to assert, but does not explain, a ‘concordant need to resume the carefully balanced protections implemented by federal regulations.’
The federal regulations, absent the challenges posed by the pandemic, are understandable: international students enrolled in online courses only are not eligible for entry into the U.S. But we still have the raging pandemic that prompted the adjustment, so why are we in such a hurry to ‘resume the carefully balanced protections’ that we needed to relax only months ago? How would we benefit by inhibiting international education?
Without question, international students are an unmitigated plus to U.S. higher education, U.S. diplomacy, and the U.S. economy.
In the 2018-2019 academic year, international students spent over $41 billion in the U.S. on academic and living expenses, revenue that supported over 458,000 American jobs. As an example drawn from a single state, that year 14,000 international students brought nearly $450 million and over 5000 jobs to Wisconsin. (Data from NAFSA: Association of International Educators).
American classrooms and students benefit from the presence of talented foreign students and their differing perspectives.
And our higher education system – large, diverse, and excellent at every level — remains a powerful diplomatic advantage. Top students from around the world come here for a first-rate education in English, preparing themselves for global careers. Some wind up staying legally, providing an injection of talent and energy into our economy. Most return home, familiar with American values, culture, and language as they move to assume leadership positions in their own countries.
American institutions are working hard to devise means to advance their academic missions while keeping their students, faculty, and staff safe. Schools will employ a variety of approaches, depending on their circumstances, and some will choose an online approach. Forcing students who attend such institutions to return home will be emotionally distressing, economically burdensome, and academically damaging for each of them.
What will the U.S. gain by doing so?
International education is one of those rare experiences where everyone – visitors and hosts – comes out a winner. Harvard and MIT have filed suit, and the Boston Globe reports that a hearing will be scheduled for Monday.
Let’s hope the court gets this decision right. If it thinks about broad U.S. national interests, it will.
Michael McCarry served for 21 years as Executive Director of the Alliance for International Exchange, an association of U.S. exchange sponsors. Earlier, as a USIA Foreign Service Officer, he served overseas in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Beijing, and in Washington as staff director of the Bureau for Educational and Cultural Affairs. He currently serves as Senior Advisor to Cenet, a Missouri-based exchange sponsor, and as a trustee of the EF Foundation.