Rethinking University Dependence on Foreign Students

Were all of the foreign students returning to America’s campuses in January vectors of infection for coronavirus? Especially the students from China? There’s no evidence yet to prove the point, although the odds are that at least some coronavirus infection came to the United States from foreign students.

If we’ve been spared a campus plague, it’s owing to the grace of God, and not to any actions by our colleges and universities.

To my knowledge, before the decision was taken out of their hands by the general lockdowns, no American college or university barred foreign students from returning to campus. No academic administration even suggested that foreign students should self-quarantine for two weeks before interacting with other students or professors.

The most active were institutions such as Princeton, which followed “a recommendation by the New Jersey Department of Health that students and faculty at K-12 schools and colleges who have recently returned from China ‘self-quarantine’ for two weeks if they’re at moderate or high risk of potentially contracting the illness.” Colleges and universities did nothing better than grudgingly acquiesce to ineffective directives from state health departments.

The fundamental reason was the colleges’ dependence on foreign students. As of the 2018-2019 school year, foreign students made up 5.5 percent of the total American undergraduate student body—nearly 1.1 million in total, of whom almost 370,000 came from China. Because foreign students pay full tuition, with no in-state discounts, colleges receive 28 percent of their tuition revenue from just that 5.5 percent.

Even setting aside the influence exerted by means such as China’s Confucius Institutes and petro-sheikh-funded Islamic Centers, colleges and universities’ financial dependence on foreign students gives them a strong incentive to do nothing to lower the number of foreign students coming to America.

Even at the risk of enabling the spread of a coronavirus pandemic.

I’ve suggested elsewhere that if there’s going to be a coronavirus bailout for higher education, the government should limit eligibility to colleges and universities that receive no more than 20 percent of their tuition revenues from international students, and no more than 5 percent of their tuition revenues from students from any one foreign country. But maybe that should be a permanent condition—a requirement, say, for eligibility to receive any Title IV student loans or grants.

That limitation should be accompanied by a limitation on the proportion of foreign students as part of an undergraduate student body, to no more than 5 percent. Colleges and universities should generally frame their policies to serve American students—why else, after all, do they have tax-free status, if not to serve the interests of the American people by educating their children? They cannot focus on that primary mission if they constantly compete to attract foreign student dollars.

The same limitation could also be applied to eligibility to receive federal research grants, which provide enormous amounts of money to American colleges and universities, especially the large research universities.

Doubtless, American universities will attempt to wiggle around such limitations. These should be framed explicitly to require American universities to focus on students who are American citizens—not green-card holders, not the beneficiaries of any of America’s labyrinth of visa entries, and certainly not illegal aliens, not even if beneficiaries of DACA or “Dreamers.”

Illegal aliens should not be American college students at all—but if that cannot be prevented outright, then their numbers should be counted among the foreign-student limit. If colleges must indulge in admitting illegal aliens, let that count against their quota of cash-cow foreign students.

When colleges and universities can no longer rely on foreign tuition subsidy, they might then try to attract American students and their tuition dollars by competing to provide a rigorous, remunerative education.

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About David Randall

David Randall is Director of Research at the National Association of Scholars.

Photo: Oliver Morris/Getty Images

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