Donald Trump’s directive will force students to either transfer to a school that still offers in-person classes or leave the US

Overseas students are the latest target of President Donald Trump’s efforts against immigration into the US. They will no longer be allowed to stay in the US if their university moves classes fully online this autumn, his administration announced this week.

The decision is controversial. US colleges will stick with remote learning only because they wish to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Mr Trump’s directive will force students to either transfer to a school that still offers in-person classes (and risk catching or spreading the virus) or leave the US. No surprise, then, that Harvard and MIT are suing to block it.

The new policy will end up hurting one of the few sectors for which the US runs a big trade surplus. About 1.1m foreign students study at US colleges and universities, according to the Institute of International Education. Including spending on housing and other goods, foreign students contributed close to $45bn to the US economy in 2018. That puts it on par with some of America’s traditional export industries. Consider that soyabean shipments to other countries were worth just $18.7bn in 2019. 

The importance of foreign students is particularly pronounced in the US rust belt. Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Pennsylvania are among the 10 US states that receive the most international students. These are the same states that Mr Trump counts on carrying him to another election victory. In these regions universities have been credited with reviving the local economy. Money from outside gets spent locally, which can generate new wealth around college towns.

Longer term, America’s future as a hub of scientific and technological innovation is at stake. Forty per cent of foreign students enrolled for the 2019-2020 school year studied either engineering or maths and computer science. This makes them an important source of talent for Big Tech.

Knee-jerk responses are often flawed, including those by Mr Trump. The latest crackdown on foreign students looks no different.

Our popular newsletter for premium subscribers Best of Lex is published twice weekly. Please sign up here.

Get alerts on US politics & policy when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article