So the Trump administration wants students of all ages back in the classroom come September, assuming, we must suppose, that if it’s good enough for meat packing plants, it’s good enough for schools. Some political genius in the West Wing thinks that forcing millions of students into conditions that turn them into super spreaders infecting each other, their teachers, their parents, and their grandparents will be a slick campaign move a month ahead of the election. As part of this plan, the good folks at Immigration and Customs Enforcement threatened to take some time off from separating parents from their children and deport international college students in an effort to bend colleges to the president’s full re-opening will.
This threat drew an uncharacteristically swift response from the usually staid halls of academia. Harvard and M. I. T., followed by more than a third of states’ attorneys general and myriad other institutions from all points on the collegiate compass, immediately sued to prevent the administration from forcing students enrolled only in online classes to return to their home countries. This academic and legal flex was enough to convince the Trumpsters to rescind the offending rule ten minutes before a judge was about to rule against them.
The whole fire drill told us nothing new about the racist, xenophobic White House, but it did pull the curtain back on the vulnerability of U.S. higher education.
Our states’ and universities’ arguments and amicus briefs were eloquent descriptions of the social, cultural, and economic value of students from around the globe studying in the United States. Opening the doors of the world’s best higher education system has been an unqualified good for both the United States and the rest of the world. Had the Trump administration succeeded in expelling all international students, the results would have been devastating for both academia and the United States.
But politicians and policy makers of all stripes have been doing bad things to colleges (state defunding, curtailing affirmative action, assaults on tenure, the privatization of research, etc.) for the last forty years. It’s hard to remember a time when university bosses were so united, swift, and effective in their response as they were this time. And that’s because, along with all the intellectual and cultural upside they bring, international students also bring a lot of money.
At public colleges and universities, out-of-state and international students have become a cornerstone of the business plan. State legislatures, imagining their inadequate appropriations cover more educational costs than they do, keep a tight rein on what schools can charge in-state residents. But those who want to cross state lines and international borders for their education have remained fair game for market pricing. In 2020-21, resident undergraduate tuition at the University of Washington will be about 10k. But international students will pay 37k. For the university’s bottom line, a well-heeled international student with the means to pay full freight is worth four times as much as a student bringing their Washington College Grant from Tacoma. With tuition accounting for somewhere between half and two-thirds of public university budgets, college presidents, CFOs, and admissions directors, no matter how true they may remain in their hearts to the idea of genuinely public education, are forced to think of students as revenue streams. The financial health of the institution depends on butts in seats, and foreign butts are worth a lot more than domestic ones.
International students have become such hot commodities that a for-profit industry has sprung up around them. Companies such as INTO and Study Group offer glossy bounty hunting services to colleges desperate to cash in on students from other countries willing to pay premium rates. For a slice of the tuition (often more than a half slice in a student’s first year), these firms deliver international students to the ivy gates and help them massage the reduced academic entrance requirements that have been negotiated between the company and the campus administrators (without any input from the pesky faculty). It’s not what Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman got busted for, but it’s somewhere on the same continuum.
Colleges rushed to court to protect their property rights in international students because it was absolutely necessary to prevent a short-term financial disaster. But that narrowly averted possible disaster should lead us to some longer term thinking that recognizes that international students should be welcomed to our colleges solely as students, not as premium customers.
ICE’s attempt to hold lucrative international students hostage in order to bend academia to the president’s will is just another example of how the ongoing pandemic continues to reveal the dangerous ways in which public higher education has come to be financed. In the face of raging infection rates and despite biology departments full of professors telling them they’re insane, many college presidents continue to publicly imagine re-opened campuses in the fall. They’re doing this not because they don’t understand science, but because they know that lower enrollments and empty dorms and dining halls could spell financial ruin. In the same way that we need to return to the idea of international students as students and not cash machines, we need to return to the idea of public higher education as a publicly financed public good. Looking toward the world that will emerge from the pandemic, states should not cut public higher ed and the federal government should invest heavily. This would allow colleges to return to making decisions based on safety, public health, and education, and not just ransom demands.