Trump’s travel ban orders will harm US higher education

The potential impact of the recent ban on entry into the United States by citizens from seven Muslim countries, signed by US President Donald Trump, could be severe for international enrolments at many US higher education institutions. It will dramatically reduce the number of international students not only from the seven named countries but other Muslim-majority countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia were among the top 15 places of origin for international students in 2015-16, according to the Institute of International Education. The domino effect of this ban will result in a precipitous decline in international student enrolment from Muslim-majority countries.

Intensive English programmes and undergraduate programmes are likely to suffer from enrolment decline in students from Saudi Arabia, a key market for US higher education. It was already witnessing a drop in enrolment due to the cut in the Saudi government's scholarship programme.

The ban will especially hurt graduate schools. This is due to the fact that the majority of the students from the seven banned countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – were primarily enrolled in graduate level programmes. For example, 70% of Iranian students were enrolled in doctoral-level programmes (8,603 out of 12,427) in 2016, according to data from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program.

Optional Practical Training

One of the leaked draft executive orders on the news site Vox focuses on limiting legal immigration. It is entitled “Protecting American Jobs and Workers by Strengthening the Integrity of Foreign Worker Visa Programmes”.

Its provisions on Optional Practical Training states: “(vii) propose for notice and comment on a regulation that would reform practical training programmes for foreign students to prevent the disadvantaging of US students in the workforce, better protect US and foreign workers affected by such programmes, restore the integrity of student visa programmes, ensure compliance and improve monitoring of foreign students.”

Vox reports that this order could "...reverse [Barack] Obama’s extension of the duration of Optional Practical Training work visas”.

Optional Practical Training or OPT is a highly attractive programme for international students – the number of OPT students from the seven banned countries rose by 664% between 2014-15 and 2015-16 to 1,940.

OPT helps students gain work experience, enrich their educational learning and recover a part of their investment in education. Employers gain by bringing in global talent and exploring their skill sets before deciding about sponsoring an employment visa.

The standard duration of OPT is one year. On 8 April 2008 the Department of Homeland Security approved a 17-month OPT extension for students graduating with a degree in a STEM – science, technology, engineering, mathematics – field. A new rule effective from 10 May 2016 further extended 17 months to 24 months for STEM graduates.

The STEM OPT extension is especially appealing to Indian students, who are concentrated in masters programmes in engineering and computer science. Data from the Student and Exchange Visitor Program indicates that in 2016, 83% of Indian students, 43% of Saudi Arabian students, 78% of Iranian students and 40% of Chinese students were enrolled in STEM programmes.

Here are some of the trends related to OPT during the eight years between 2007-08 and 2015-16. The academic year 2007-08 is selected to compare the enrolment trends prior to the approval of the 17-month STEM extension:
  • • In 2015-16, there were 90,732 more international students on OPT than in 2007-08;
  • • In the eight years, the growth rate of student numbers on OPT was higher than the growth rate for total enrolment;
  • • Two out of every three international students on OPT is from China or India (2015-16);
  • • One in six Chinese students in the US is on OPT (2015-16);
  • • One in four Indian students in the US is on OPT (2015-16).
With only 20,000 H1-B visas allocated for international students graduating with advanced degrees from the US, most international students have to return to their home countries eventually. OPT provides a critical experiential learning opportunity to complement the academic curriculum with practical skills.

OPT is one of the key differentiators in an increasingly competitive landscape of attracting international students from around the world. International students contributed US$32.8 billion to the US economy, according to NAFSA, in 2015-16. Any policy that destabilises the prospects of gaining work experience will inevitably hurt the American economy and higher education institutions.

If the Executive Order on limiting legal immigration and reversing the OPT extension comes into force, it would result in many international students 'opting out' of the US as a preferred destination of choice. As international student recruitment moves to a phase of hyper-competition, American higher education institutions cannot afford to lose OPT, which is one of the attractive elements for international students aiming to study in the US.

Rahul Choudaha is co-founder of DrEducation and interEDGE. He researches, speaks, writes and consults on international student trends and their implications for institutional strategies and student success. Choudaha holds a doctorate in higher education from the University of Denver, USA. He is reachable at info@dreducation.com and @DrEducationBlog.