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Trump exposes academia’s addiction to foreign students

Updated: Jul 28

By Brian Lonergan

President Trump recently swatted a hornet's nest when Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that foreign students would have to leave the country or transfer if their school only offers online classes in the fall.


After several schools filed for a restraining order, Trump rescinded the ICE change and avoided a messy standoff. By firing volleys at the ivory tower, however, Trump pulled back the veil to reveal academia as the profit-driven, self-serving enterprise it is.


Immigration rules that predate the Trump administration require foreign students to take no more than one class per semester online. In response to the coronavirus lockdown, the president waived the requirement for the spring and summer semesters. The rule was to go back into effect for the fall.


Upon hearing ICE’s announcement, school presidents were struck with a case of the vapors. Harvard University, Northeastern University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston, seeking a temporary restraining order against the rule. Other elite institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley were discussing offering fake in-person classes just to keep foreign students enrolled.

While the change would have caused inconvenience to many foreign students, the real impetus behind academia’s fervor in opposing the rule was money. Foreign students are a cash cow for higher education, paying roughly three times the tuition of in-state students. In 2015, public universities alone reaped a windfall of more than $9 billion in tuition and fees from foreign students.


The elephant in the room is that the federal government supplies higher education with billions in grants every year. That doesn’t stop colleges and universities from thumbing their noses at their federal benefactors by enrolling illegal immigrants and boycotting companies that work with ICE.


The relationship between higher education and foreign students is also a driver for visa overstays. The Department of Homeland Security reported in 2017 that more than 606,000 visitors overstayed their tourist, work, business, and student visas. With immigration agencies overwhelmed by border jumpers, refugees, and countless others, it is difficult to track down every expired visa holder. One of the many ways to live in the U.S. illegally is to obtain a student visa, then melt into the shadows of American society when the visa expires.


Given the role of foreign students in higher education’s financial structure, one can easily envision the spin colleges would employ to frighten the public into supporting their dependence on students from overseas. Without the revenue from foreign students, the argument goes, higher education will have no choice but to raise tuition drastically for your little Johnny or Susie when they seek admission. That is a false choice.


There are alternatives to raising tuition. One would be to tap into their massive endowments. Yale’s endowment is more than $29 billion, and Princeton’s is over $25 billion. Harvard, a plaintiff in the recent lawsuit, has the mother of all endowments at over $39 billion. That is more than the gross domestic product of Estonia.

Another option would be to slash payroll from the layers and layers of bureaucracy at most institutes of higher learning. Over the past four decades, colleges and universities have hired administrative staff at a rate five times faster than professors. Deans, provosts, and inclusion diversity administrators may pull down high six-figure salaries, but it is doubtful they would be missed.


If the higher education industry believes its courses this fall should be online-only, it raises a fair question: If foreign students are taking their classes online, why do they need to be in the U.S. at all? White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, a Harvard Law School graduate, framed the issue correctly when asked about it at a recent media briefing.


“Perhaps the better lawsuit,” she said, “would be coming from students who have to pay full tuition with no access to in-person classes to attend."


Academia’s addiction to foreign students is analogous to big business’s addiction to cheap foreign labor. They are both exploiting foreign nationals to pad their bottom lines. In both cases, American citizens tend to be excluded or replaced as a result. Despite their soaring ideals and ivy-covered buildings, our revered institutes of higher learning should be treated no differently than any other large corporations that play fast and loose with our immigration laws to increase cash flow.


Brian Lonergan is director of communications at the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a public interest law firm working to defend the rights and interests of the American people from the negative effects of mass migration.


Also published at: Brian Lonergan, Trump exposes academia’s addiction to foreign students, The Washington Examiner, July 22, 2020.

IRLI is a supporting organization of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

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