Will U.S. Restrict Visas for Chinese Students?

News reports that the Trump administration is considering restrictions on visas for Chinese citizens raise concerns about potentially “devastating” impact on American colleges and U.S. competitiveness.

March 16, 2018
 

Two major news organizations are reporting that the Trump administration is considering restrictions on visas for Chinese citizens, including students, as part of a forthcoming package of tariffs and investment restrictions against China.

The Wall Street Journal and Politico have both reported that the administration is considering the visa restrictions as part of what the Journal described as a package of measures intended to punish China for allegedly violating American intellectual property laws and pressuring U.S. companies to transfer technology. According to the Journal, the White House is considering limiting the number of study and work visas for Chinese citizens and ending a program that allows frequent travelers to the U.S. to get visas that last 10 years.

It’s unclear if the potential visa restrictions will become policy -- Politico reported that some Trump administration officials are against them -- and just how broad they would be. But it is clear that restrictions on visas for Chinese citizens could have negative effects on U.S. colleges and universities.

China sends by far the most international students to the United States, accounting for close to a third of international students on U.S. campuses, and American colleges depend heavily on Chinese students for both the tuition revenue and the academic talent they bring. China is also the largest source country for visiting scholars to American universities, and legions of scholars originally from China have earned their Ph.Ds. in the U.S. and stayed to pursue their careers.

The new worries about potential restrictions for Chinese student visas build on widespread concerns about falling international enrollments at U.S. universities, which declined by 2.2 percent at the undergraduate level and 5.5 percent at the graduate level from fall 2016 to fall 2017, according to an analysis of student visa data by the National Science Foundation.

In a written statement, Esther D. Brimmer, the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association for International Educators, said that any restrictions on visas for Chinese citizens would have “devastating” effects and that "students should never be used as bargaining chips."

“If the administration imposes restrictions that will further prohibit students and scholars from choosing the United States as their destination, we will suffer devastating impacts for decades to come,” Brimmer said. “The U.S. is already losing overall market share of internationally mobile students. Countries like Australia and Canada have worked to welcome international students, and their efforts have paid dividends. Meanwhile, America is beginning to see our international student enrollment decrease, and a threat of action like this will only exacerbate the problem.”

“With international students contributing $36.9 billion to the U.S. economy last year and supporting more than 450,000 jobs, any drop in enrollment would have severe consequences,” Brimmer said. “Chinese students alone contribute $12 billion, alongside countless other benefits, so even a modest reduction in Chinese enrollment would be devastating. Because Chinese students and scholars contribute so much to our science and innovation, virtually every community in America would feel the impact if Chinese student visas were restricted in any way.”

“A broader restriction on their ability to pursue higher education in the U.S. could have long-term implications for the U.S. scientific work force and U.S. competitiveness -- but that is if there is a broad restriction that applies to any science or engineering field,” said Hironao Okahana, the associate vice president for research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools. “At this point we really don’t know how narrow or broad, if any, the restrictions are that the administration is considering.”

Survey data collected by CGS show that students from China accounted for 38 percent of new international students at the master’s level and 33 percent at the doctoral level at U.S. graduate schools in fall 2017. Okahana​ also drew attention to the NSF's Survey of Earned Doctorates, which found that Chinese citizens on temporary visas earned about 10 percent of all doctoral degrees awarded by American universities in 2016, and that the vast majority of Chinese doctoral graduates earned degrees in science and engineering fields. Just over 80 percent of Chinese citizens on temporary visas say they plan to stay in the U.S. after earning their doctorates (even if existing visa policies don't always make that easy).

“The broader implications for U.S. innovation could be quite serious depending on what the restriction imposed ends up being,” said Stuart Anderson, the executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, which has issued a number of research reports on enrollments of international students and their importance to universities and to American science and engineering. “If it ends up that Chinese students long term decide the U.S. is not a reliable place to come study and work, then that’ll shut off a major avenue of talent both at universities and in the U.S. tech sector.”

Anderson said the mere fact that restrictions on visas for Chinese citizens are being considered -- and reported on by reputable publications -- could have an impact on international student choices, even if they never become policy.

"People often rely on less than perfect information in making decisions," Anderson said. "International students, they go online, they communicate with each other, they pick up on rumors, they see news reports and they can start making decisions based on that."

"The best way to look at this is not in isolation; it's to consider the other signals that international students are getting," Anderson added. One of those signals, he said, is the Trump administration's stated intent to issue a new rule governing the optional practical training program, which allows international students to work while staying on their student visas for up to three years after they graduate. Many observers have cited uncertainty about the future of the OPT program as one factor behind the recent declines in international student enrollment.

The U.S. has long been the most popular destination in the world for international students. Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, pointed out that international student enrollment numbers have declined in the U.S. before, after Sept. 11, but that proved to be a “blip” and the numbers then began to grow again. Still, Hartle expressed concern about a number of recent incidents that have made the U.S. seem less welcoming or safe to international students.

“I think in the last 13 months, several things have made the U.S. appear to be a less desirable destination for students and scholars,” Hartle said. The first, he said, was the Trump administration's travel ban, various iterations of which have restricted entry for citizens of a group of mostly Muslim-majority countries. The second, he said, concerned comments by the FBI director, Christopher Wray, who, as Hartle said, "basically called Chinese students spies in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That doesn't really send a positive signal." (Wray's full comments -- and responses to them -- can be found here.)

The third event, Hartle said, includes “the occasional acts of violence against foreigners that get widely publicized abroad.” He cited the February 2017 shooting in a bar outside Kansas City, Kans., when a man who is now facing federal hate-crime charges killed an engineer from India and injured two others -- a crime that received extensive news coverage in India -- and international coverage of the march of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., last summer.

"What’s happened over the last year: first, we’ve seen a decline in the number of international students admitted, second, as The Wall Street Journal just reported, we’ve seen a significant decline in the number of student visas that have been issued, and third, there are now these stories that the administration is at least thinking about the more restrictive use of student visas pursuant to concerns about trade," Hartle said.

"Obviously the issue there is less [about] foreign students than it’s a reaction to the administration’s views about the way other countries treat us, but the bottom line is international students have benefited this country enormously over the last 25 years. We believe it’s in America’s interest to be the destination of choice for the world’s best students and scholars, and it would be a very sad day if we undermine that perception."

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