Travel Bans and Talent Drains

The unfolding effects of President Trump’s travel ban(s), compounded by coronavirus, are evidenced in America’s diminishing supply of a most precious resource: young talent.

For the last three academic years, the number of new international students at US colleges and universities has declined, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). While some of this drop is due to demographic forces beyond the administration’s control, IIE surveys and pleas by the nation’s university presidents reveal students essentially being turned away, stuck in immigration limbo. In doing this, the President and his advisors risk endangering a research university system propped up by USD 41 billion annually in international students’ contributions, according to NAFSA.

As it turns out, banning students from almost a dozen nations —  including Nigeria, one of the fastest growing sources of new international students over the last decade until February’s ban — is bad for admissions, and so is bullying the rest. And that was before coronavirus.

Following the initial outbreak of Covid-19 in Wuhan, America enacted flight restrictions that trapped almost 370,000 Chinese students in the US. The subsequent decision by university administrators to close campuses and hastily move instruction online further confused matters, raising the prospect that more than a million international students would be in violation of their visas.

For the children of a rising global middle class with more and more options, this pandemic may prove to be the tipping point in choosing educational destinations. International enrollments in Canada and Australia have surged during the Trump years while America’s have dissipated. As I write this from Montréal on 17 March, Canada has closed its borders and is racing to enforce social distancing well ahead of America’s pace at this point in detecting infections.

When the world gradually recovers —  with China, South Korea, and Singapore already succeeding in slowing the outbreak through effective quarantines —  don’t be surprised if the best and brightest take coronavirus response into consideration when deciding on their future options. Just as American companies consider ‘decoupling’ from Chinese suppliers, so may Chinese students decide to decouple from American universities.

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