For decades, American higher education has represented the gold standard for education around the globe, drawing the most academically talented and ambitious students around the world. In return, international students contribute billions to our economy through tuition dollars and day-to-day spending. They also present an invaluable opportunity for all students to engage with different cultures, further research and innovation, and bolster our country’s global opportunities through a vast international alumni network.
However, for the third consecutive year, new international student enrollment at American universities has fallen, according to an Institute of International Education survey. Moreover, enrollment numbers could shrink further now that a federal lawsuit and the Trump administration are looking to dismantle the Optional Practical Training program that allows international students to work here up to three years after they graduate. In 2017, a leaked draft indicated President Donald Trump hoped to reduce OPT. That hasn’t happened — yet — but the government has introduced newly complicated guidelines for the program and started inspecting OPT work sites. If the lawsuit is successful, it could facilitate the program’s end.
Some worry international graduates will hurt the American labor force. But research shows that they do “not reduce job opportunities for American workers in STEM fields” and can actually lead to higher wages for some Americans. Additionally, OPT enables innovative students to create opportunities for Americans. For example, an international biomedical engineering student at Tulane is working on developing and commercializing innovative medical technologies and has co-founded two start-up companies. These technologies won’t just reduce U.S. health care costs, but can also help create jobs.
New graduates rely on OPT to gain crucial work experience. Students have told me it’s a major reason they come to the U.S. instead of attending university back home or in another country, and recent research supports this. Without these students, university campuses will suffer. And when they graduate, employers will lose access to a badly needed talent pool. This is particularly true in STEM fields, where in 2016, there were 13 times more STEM jobs posted online than unemployed STEM workers able to fill them, according to the New American Economy. Recognizing this problem, the federal government granted an extension to STEM majors that same year, allowing them to remain in the country for an additional two years, for a total of three, if they meet eligibility criteria. To roll back the extension would cost the U.S. $130,661,096, according to NAE.
If OPT were eliminated, the effects will be felt acutely here in Louisiana. Last year our state hosted 7,428 international students, a 4.2 percent decrease from the 2017-2018 academic year. Those students managed to spend $264,879,380 and supported 2,996 jobs, according to NAFSA. Within our state, New Orleans stands to benefit the most economically. Which also means we have the most to lose.
The fact is, while anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are pushing students away, countries like Canada, Australia and the UK are not only welcoming them, but strategizing ways to attract them. They recognize the value these students bring and are happy to provide an alternative to the U.S. Dismantling the OPT program will only give the international community one more reason to look elsewhere when deciding where to invest their time and money — and our loss will be their gain.
Kristy Magner is director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at Tulane University.