There has always been a historic tension between America’s colleges and universities and the government, whether at the state or federal level. It’s unavoidable. Once the government began to fund students and institutions in the late 20th century, its leaders believed that they had a right and responsibility to oversee the use of those government funds.
Priorities: Protect Funding & Tax-Exempt Status, Fight Excessive Regulation
For most of the national trade associations representing higher education, three goals emerged. The first was to protect the level of state and federal support that higher education received from them. The second was to preserve and safeguard fundamental underpinnings like the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities. And finally, the third was to monitor and argue against excessive regulation.
As government discretionary spending decreased — with debt repayment levels rising and deficit financing the order of the day — state and federal spending became increasingly less stable. Today, America governs at the federal level by Continuing Resolution, careening from one deadline to the next. At the state level, annual budget deadlines are seldom met unless mandated by state law.
In a world of last-minute, lobbyist-infused backroom deals, it’s impossible to plan accurately and consistently on most college campuses. You never quite know how the cards will play out.
In recent years, most in the higher education leadership have worried that, in the absence of discretion, the federal government will turn increasingly to regulation. The Obama years provide numerous examples to justify such concern. Further, the government seems to be in a never-ending dance over the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, further complicating higher education’s relationship with an important partner.
Trump Policies and Actions Heighten Higher Education’s Sense of Alarm
Since last year’s presidential election, many have slightly shifted their concern about the federal role in government. There seem to be a number of forces at work within the government that have heightened a sense of alarm.
The first is that higher education does not seem to have the champions that it used to in the federal executive and legislative branches.
To illustrate, the passage of the new tax bill was problematic. Two examples show why. Proponents suggested a tax on graduate scholarships that ultimately did not make it into the final draft of the bill. The effect would have been disastrous for graduate and professional education. Second, earlier tax bill drafts called for a tax on the country’s largest endowments, reportedly to encourage better use of endowment spending.
Let’s set aside the obvious question about why a government that cannot govern or budget effectively is a necessary and sufficient monitor of higher education spending. In the end, it is what it is.
Active Effort by Trump Administration to Diminish Higher Education
The second is that there appears to be an active effort – in rhetoric and action — by President Trump and his supporters to diminish the stature of American higher education. Leaders of America’s major research universities have agreed among themselves to take more active public positions in an effort to counter souring public perceptions of higher education. Without a coordinated plan – and the support of their trustees and campus communities – there is likely to be a limit on whether their efforts will work.
Immigration Actions Mean Fewer International Students
The third is that “America first” policies on immigration have a deleterious effect on many colleges and universities. America is the global leader in providing high quality education at any level. It attracts the best and brightest from around the world.
The impact of quota policies – and the impressions created of them and held by international students and their families – diminishes the talent pool within the American workforce. It also decreases foreign tuition payments, the ability to sustain a global campus, and the intellectual exchanges necessary to keep the next great ideas coming.
In an American workforce approaching full employment, the need for more workers – and the best educated among them graduating from American colleges and universities – will be a growing problem if a strong economy holds.
These shifting concerns suggest a growing need to be aware of shifting emphases in the relationship between higher education and the government. They raise legitimate questions:
- Will the government at the state and federal levels continue to be a steady, reliable and consistent funder of higher education?
- Does the government still see higher education as integral to its sense of commonwealth?
- Lacking discretion, will the government turn to a stringent regulatory environment to enforce its political goals, however inconsistent they appear to be?
Higher education would be well advised to have clear policy goals as we move forward. It must also look for ways to work with Congress and the Trump Administration to safeguard and advance its goals.
But the days of concerns over money, taxes, and regulation levels are gone. While we can hope for the best, the willingness of the president to use executive action to change the regulatory environment is something that we are free to ignore at our own peril.
The Boston Globe recently reported on the decision by record numbers of international students to choose Canada when pursuing their higher education goals. Reporter Laura Krantz noted:
“Some reasons are longstanding – fear of gun crime in the United States and cheaper tuition up north. But the 2016 election, and with it Trump’s travel ban and what many see as the demonization of foreigners and immigrants and a new wave of racism, have created a post-Trump surge at Canadian colleges.”
At the University of Toronto, the number of foreign students who accepted admissions offers increased by 21 percent. In fairness, Canada has increased its international recruiting goals to spur economic growth. It has 353,000 international students today but plans to increase the number to 450,000 by 2022.
Overall, the number of international students has increased 92 percent in Canada since 2008. Ms. Krantz relates: “By comparison, the United States has about one million foreign students and a population ten times the size of Canada.”
International Student Enrollment Declines at U.S. Colleges, Universities
Elizabeth Redden reported similar findings in Inside Higher Education earlier this month after interviewing about two dozen university officials. She found:
“…no consistent, unifying trends emerge, but some are reporting a slowdown in the flow of students from China and declines in graduate students from India, two countries that together account for nearly half of all international students in the U.S. Universities also continue to feel the effects of the declines in enrollments of Saudi Arabian students that began in 2016, after the Saudi government tightened up some of the terms of its massive scholarship program.”
Is the U.S. Losing Its Competitive Edge with International Students?
This raises the important question about how American colleges and universities present their value proposition to international students. Ms. Redden notes that Dane Rowley, international admissions director at California Lutheran University, suggests:
“In some ways it’s really good; the accessibility of international education is expanding for students, so they don’t have to come to the U.S. as the be-all, end-all of international education. It just happens that it’s coming at a time when the U.S. is almost abdicating its international edge with international students.”
Ms. Redden further reports that Rahul Choudaha, executive vice president for global engagement, research and intelligence for StudyPortals, an online international student marketing and recruitment platform, surmises that large research universities: “… seem to be less hurting than the other categories, because they have a much longer history of enrolling international students, but also they have a better brand than the other institutions that joined the international student wave in the last decade or so.” By contrast, he said,
“Institutions which are not perceived to be high ranked or are not located close to major cities or [that have not] experienced challenges with student experiences or [are] over-reliant on few markets (e.g., Saudi or China or India) will be the first to get hurt. Many institutions that were late entrants in building their capacity for international enrollment will be the first to lose in this wave of declining international enrollment for fall 2017. The multiplier effect of financial implications of lower fall 2017 enrollment over next two to four years [is] significant for institutions already hurting.”
Mr. Choudaha argues: “The years of fairly easy growth may be over — at least for many universities, and at least for now. Universities may have to work harder to keep their international enrollments steady, or at least to prevent precipitous drops.”
Fewer International Students Hits Colleges’ Revenue Stream
These changes have important policy implications for American higher education. At smaller colleges that are less well known, the implications to their financial bottom line can be enormous.
The decline in international students destabilizes the tuition base and may dramatically affect net tuition revenue on which almost all of these institutions depend heavily.
It looks like American colleges and universities will suffer the most in the battle between the economics that helps them be sustainable long term and the politics administered by the US State Department.
US Immigration Policy Hinders International Students’ Ability to Work After Graduation
The problem is complicated because international students face additional concerns over their ability to obtain US work visas after graduation, further depressing the number of international students in American universities. This is not a problem in Canada, for example, especially since the Canadian government had instituted policies making it easier for international students graduating from Canadian universities to obtain work in Canada after graduation.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect is the sense that American higher education is suffering a public relations debacle, whether because of the Trump Administration’s political agenda or a sense by the students that America is no longer a safe or welcoming place for them.
This will have long-term implications for the American workforce, especially since the workforce benefits enormously from the talent available after the graduation of non-US-born graduates.
If the nationalism that polarizes much of America continues, the impact will damage US international standing further and weaken the growth of the American economy.
Has anyone really thought this through carefully?