Soft Power in the American Academy

Photo: US Department of State

International students who come to the United States have been a tool in the arsenal of American soft power diplomacy as well as an economic boon for American universities. The Trump administration and the nativist climate it has arguably exploited, however, may be having an impact on how students abroad make their decisions on where to study.

After the first travel ban, some students with valid visas were stranded in their home countries. Several of my own colleagues are now afraid to leave the country and return home to see their families due to uncertainty about whether they would be allowed back in.

Following the recent racially-motivated tragic killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas, many Indians are reporting a generally toxic environment around coming to the United States. The family of Madasani Alok Reddy, who was injured in the attack, appealed to Indians in the Hindustan Times “not to send their children to the U.S. in the present circumstances.”

With the welcome not seeming so warm to many foreign students, the United States stands to lose out.

Foreign students are beneficial to the United States in a variety of ways. They act as informal ambassadors of American culture. Many students who come here to pursue their degrees enjoy the experience and leave with a positive view of America that they take back home to their countries.

These cultural windfalls also are complemented by economic ones. International students often pay higher tuition, which funds scholarship programs for American students. According to the Department of Commerce, foreign students accounted for more than $32 billion in economic activity during the 2015-2016 academic year.

The interaction between foreign and domestic students also creates an environment that fosters new ideas and creativity that keeps the American economy dynamic and innovative. These new ideas can fuel business ventures that are built on connections international students make during their time studying in the United States.

These benefits may be put at risk if the administration continues to use rhetoric that alienates pretty much anyone who isn’t American.

Although it will take a year or more to get any good statistical evidence, there is certainly already some anecdotal evidence that students are more wary of the United States then they used to be. The Association of International Educators, for example, has reported growing concerns about students coming to the United States, and the aforementioned calls to Indian parents to keep their children away from the United States are likely to be at least considered by Indian parents.

At a time when American universities are competing with European, Australian and Canadian universities of equal quality, the decision to come to the United States may seem less appealing with a sentiment of populist nativism on the rise.

The potential losses here are significant. When an undergraduate student decides to go somewhere else, American universities aren’t losing just a year of income from that student, they’re losing four years.

For example, the Office of International Services at Indiana University estimates that for a single academic year, a foreign student will pay $35,803 in tuition and fees alone, not including the almost $10,000 in extra annual economic activity they generate.

Multiply this by four and you get an idea of how a drop in international student attendance could impact our universities.

If the Trump Administration doesn’t tone down its nativist rhetoric and do more to foster a more hospitable climate for international students, it risks both costs to the American economy and the loss of American soft power diplomacy of the academy.

First posted as an opinion column in the Greenfield Daily Reporter. The original posting can be found here

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