Diversity and Innovation in American Higher Education is Under Threat as International Students Seek Friendlier Nations

By Oluwaseun Olaniyi

Two years ago, when I moved from Nigeria to America to pursue my MBA, I arrived with a glittering narrative about this country. This was the land of freedom, where opportunities abounded and where everyone was welcome.

Most international students flock to the U.S. motivated by this belief; it’s partly why American higher education has long been a global paragon of diversity and innovation. But that reputation is now under siege from within. The most recent hit came this month, when ICE announced it would force international students to leave the U.S. if they couldn’t take in-person classes this fall. When the Trump administration reversed course a week later, it only did so under the threat of legal action from leading universities and seventeen states.

Sadly, though, the damage was done.

Even before this debacle, rising xenophobia had depressed international student enrollment—a decline of 9.6 percent between fall 2016 and fall 2017, according to Not Coming to America, a new report from New American Economy. The biggest drops included colleges in the Midwest, where I received my MBA and the South Central region, where I’ll soon be studying for a Master of Public Service degree. In a survey of 500 academic institutions, half said America’s social and political environment and an “unwelcome” atmosphere were to blame. Other surveys pointed to Trump-imposed restrictions on visas and work opportunities. America is no longer foreign students’ top choice, and that’s a demotion this country, its citizens and its economy cannot afford.

I moved to the U.S. in 2018 with more than fifteen years of business experience under my belt. I had a successful career back home, but I knew an international degree and work experience abroad would take me to the next level. Eventually, I will return to Nigeria, but first, I would very much like to further my career in America. In theory, this shouldn’t be difficult; my specialty in business analytics and marketing research are in high demand here. But U.S. policy makes it incredibly hard to find even temporary employment after graduation. This is a huge turn off for foreign talent. In most countries like Nigeria, workers gain a competitive edge when they can acquire both an advanced degree and hands on experience abroad. But as U.S. officials impose more visa restrictions, the appeal of studying here has weakened. Many Nigerians in my network have already decided against studying in the U.S., opting for more accommodating countries like Canada, Australia, Ireland and the U.K. This trend is growing across the board; in 2016, the U.S. share of the world’s international student population dropped from 27.4 percent to 19.4 percent, according to NAE.

That’s a big loss to this country in terms of innovation, cultural contributions and economic vitality. In the 2017-2018 school year, America’s roughly one million international students contributed more than $39 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 455,00 jobs, according to NAE. In Ohio where I studied, 37,314 international students contribute $1.3 billion and support 14,575 jobs according to NAFSA. Foreign-born students who stay help American employers grow and innovate, and many launch successful businesses (like Google), which create thousands of jobs for Americans.

America gains so much from welcoming international students—but loses even more by sending them away. International students like me love America, but the government’s policies are having a profound chilling effect, both on future enrollment and on those of us who are already here. I arrived believing that America embodied the ideals of diversity and inclusivity, but during my short stay I’ve experienced countless instances of racism from racial slurs to other verbal assaults from complete strangers. The glittering narrative I once held has been tempered by reality: at times, it doesn’t look like I am welcome here.

This must change. If it doesn’t, thousands of international students will go elsewhere—not because they’ve been forced to, but by choice.

Oluwaseun Olaniyi received his MBA from Ashland University in Ohio and is an incoming student at the School of Public Service in Arkansas.

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