An educational asset at risk

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Jialin Liu, left and D’Lion Justine Gorka  posed for a photo as international students moved in to the University of Rochester in August. At center is Liu’s friend Samuel Lin. ( UR photos by J. Adam Fenster)

Two years ago, Avni Tailor’s curiosity about data analytics led her to scout for graduate programs in the United States. Tailor, 24, was accepted at Rochester Institute of Technology and San Diego State University in California. She chose Rochester and doesn’t regret it.

Though RIT was an expensive choice, Tailor says loans from India—her home country—and a 30 percent scholarship from the university paved the way to the United States.

Avni Tailor

Tailor is among several thousand foreign students who come to Rochester each academic year to pursue degrees in a variety of disciples. In 2018, they were among 121,260 foreign students in New York who spent nearly $5 billion, a recent Open Doors report published by the Institute of International Education shows. Only California had more foreign students attending its colleges and universities.

RIT and the University of Rochester were among the institutions in the Open Doors study; they ranked 72nd and 61st, respectively, in terms of enrollment.

The economic boost foreign students provide is under threat, however, with current and proposed changes in immigration policies. These moves could prompt international students to pick other countries as their top choice or return to their native countries, instead of contributing to the U.S. economy. 

Sizable impact

NAFSA: Association of International Educators dissects the data further. The organization, formerly known as the National Association for Foreign Student Advisers, found international students studying in the U.S. topped 1 million, contributing $39 billion to the national economy and supporting more than 455,000 jobs in the 2017-2018 academic year.

The organization’s annual state-by-state analysis also includes a study, by congressional district, of the economic contributions of international students and their families.

Source: NAFSA

In New York’s 25th Congressional District, there were 7,978 international students enrolled, making a financial contribution of $338.4 million in support of 4,640 jobs. UR students supported the majority of those positions at 2,773. RIT was second with 1,786 and spending of $125.8 million.

“When the kids are here, they’re spending money, they’re eating food, they’re renting apartments, any range of things,” notes Frank Novak, a partner at Harter Secrest & Emery LLP, who heads the firm’s immigration practice. “They’re buying clothes, they are increasing the size of the GDP based on their presence in the U.S.

“When they graduate, a lot of them are pretty determined people,” he adds. “It does take a little extra something to go to a different country and start up a life.”

More than just money

Jeff Cox, director of International Student Services at RIT, says these students bring a thirst for innovation and creativity. That drive influences programming at universities.

“We wouldn’t even have these advanced degrees if it weren’t for international students,” Cox says.

Roughly two-thirds of international students at RIT are enrolled in graduate programs. The largest share comes from India, followed by China. Cox views these learners as critical to the higher-education system. For instance, it is a way for colleges and universities to build a pipeline for future faculty. Having graduate students also means more opportunities for existing professors to conduct research. Graduate students are often a key component of a professor’s path to tenure.

In a number of graduate science- and engineering-related programs, international students account for the majority of full-time students, research by the National Foundation for American Policy shows. And a recent CNBC All-American Economic Survey found 44 percent of Americans thought even a four-year college degree was not worth the money.

“At many U.S. universities, both majors and graduate programs could not be maintained without international students,” the October 2017 NFAP brief concluded. The same brief noted that foreign students also tend to pay their own way, contributing to an institution’s coffers.

“Frankly, it’s attractive to the higher education industry … to the extent we want this industry … to be financially sound,” Novak says.

Jane Gatewood, vice provost for global engagement at UR, believes attracting people from around the world is central to the mission of higher education. Universities that emerged in Europe in the Middle Ages drew scholars from around the world, she says.

“That is something that is absolutely core and integral to a university,” Gatewood says. “I spent time doing scholarly and academic exchange, and it transformed my life and my worldview.”

An exchange across boundaries—geographic and cultural, for instance—is necessary, she adds, especially for a locale like Rochester with a strong university grouping.

In addition to UR and RIT, international students enrolled at Nazareth College, SUNY College at Brockport and Monroe Community College were part of the NAFSA study. Combined, students at these schools spent more than $13 million in 2017-18, according to its analysis.

“There’s a lot of strength among the universities here. … There’s a kind of a constellation of institutions that really draw people from across the world,” Gatewood says. “I think that’s good for the Rochester area and Western New York. It makes people aware of the richness here.

“There are things that we do in entrepreneurship that relate well to developing economies,” she adds. “Our history of social justice in this city, working toward the betterment of all, voting rights and the like are things we can learn from other parts of the world, but we also have a lot to give.”

International student offices at RIT and UR work to foster cross-cultural give-and-take on and off campus.

“(RIT organizes) a lot of events so that students from different cultures can interact,” Tailor says. “They treat everyone very nicely.”

From campus get-togethers to working with Rochester Global Connections, foreign students get a taste of American living while they share their own experiences.

“Having a really diverse community helps us understand a variety of ways of approaching similar problems, which I think can only help us get better,” Gatewood says.

Says Cox: “The hope and reality for some students is that they end up talking about where they’re from.”

Unwelcome changes

A student’s origin from outside the United States, however, is now under scrutiny. Students who are granted admission into a program at an American institution enter the country on a student or F-1 visa. For starters, to qualify for such a visa, a candidate has to demonstrate an ability to pay tuition costs.

“In order to even get a student visa, you have to be able to show at the time that you’re applying that your family has enough money to pay for your entire U.S. education out of pocket,” says Danielle Rizzo, senior counsel and an immigration attorney at Harris Beach LLP. “These are students who are never going to qualify for a reduced in-state tuition, they’re never going to qualify for federal student loans … and they have to have it up front before they ever come here.”

But since Donald Trump became president, there are more rules to comply with. Rizzo identifies several policy changes that impact foreign students:

  • Unlawful presence: It renders international students unlawfully present after a visa status violation, however minor, even if the alleged violation is not discovered until years later. These individuals could be found inadmissible into the U.S. after travel abroad.
  • Notice to Appear: An NTA is a document used to initiate removal proceedings. Last summer the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services stated it would begin issuing NTAs whenever it denies a change of status, a visa-extension application or any other benefits. USCIS in the past did not issue these documents. (USCIS delayed the implementation of the memo, but immigration experts expect full implementation to ensue.)

“The combination of this memo and the F-1 unlawful presence memo is particularly daunting as it could mean that F-1 students who graduate and seek change of status to H-1B (work visa) who may have inadvertently violated status could find themselves being deported,” Rizzo says. “Status violations may even include such minor infractions as selling an old bicycle on eBay, if an immigration judge deems that sale to have constituted ‘employment’ in violation of status.

“Employment, other than on-campus employment, is prohibited for F-1 students without specific authorization, but ‘employment’ is not defined by the regulations and therefore could be construed extremely restrictively if an immigration judge decides to do so.”

There’s more:

  • Change in language as it pertains to third-party placement for STEM Optional Practical Training students: Upon completion of a degree, international students can opt to work in the U.S. for a limited period of time to apply their knowledge. USCIS now has modified language to indicate STEM OPT students cannot work at third-party sites like an IT consultancy, for example. These students may be found out of status when there is a site visit or when they attempt to change status to H-1B.
  • The Trump administration’s regulatory agenda indicates that it intended, in fall 2018, to issue new regulations limiting the duration for which international students can be admitted to the U.S. Currently, F-1 students may pursue an undergraduate degree, followed by a master’s, and a doctoral degree, staying for as long as needed to complete their education while maintaining their status. Experts expect this to change and the proposed rules to take effect.

Most students, after their OPT period, choose to stay in the United States for up to six years on an H-1B visa or a work visa. (I made use of that option too.) Applications for these visas now are regularly under the microscope. Immigration attorneys have noticed an uptick (some reports say up to 80 percent) in Requests for Evidence for students changing status from F-1 to H-1B.

“How are we going to compete for people when they come and make the investment to be here, only to be sent back home?” Novak says. “Imagine you’re wanting to attend a business school here and after you graduate, you want an opportunity to work in the U.S. industry to improve your skills, and, who knows, maybe you’ll start up a business and do great things.

“But if you can’t get a work authorization after school to get you beyond OPT, that really damages our ability to attract the best and the brightest.”

He adds: “It used to be that the kids were treated a little bit more gently than the people on the work visas; now they’re treated worse.”

The uncertainty over changing rules have had an impact on enrollment and sentiment among foreign nationals.

“We’re definitely in a more stressful circumstance,” Novak says. “I was talking to a foreign national professor during the period a little bit after the election. A highly competent person … they were literally frightened, and they were in tears. They had worked to be here and so many norms are broken.”

Since Trump took office, Gatewood, her team and others have held town hall meetings and training session on campus. She says the work her team does now is even more important.

“We don’t make decisions based on country of origin and we never will,” Gatewood says. “We are dedicated to supporting a diverse and high-achieving student and faculty population.”

The Open Doors report found that while overall numbers of international students increased nationally, new-student enrollments fell by 6.6 percent in 2017-18. UR has managed to buck the trend. In fact, it has seen growth. Foreign-student enrollment at the university has gone up 36 percent to roughly 3,650 students, or one-third of its total enrollment, from 2,650 in 2015.

At RIT, double-digit gains in foreign-student enrollment have dropped to single-digit increases since 2015. In the fall of 2018, RIT had 2,576 foreign students enrolled from 102 countries. Cox says a number of factors could have contributed to the change, in addition to policy changes and the U.S. presidential election. Demonetization in India, and retooling of financial-aid programs in Saudi Arabia and Brazil, for example, could have played a role. Reports suggest the travel ban blocking entry to the U.S. for nationals of some Muslim-majority countries also had an impact.

Fostering diversity

Historically, Rochester has welcomed international students and workers. Gatewood points to the fact that UR has had foreign students since 1852. To keep that diversity alive, however, she and others believe that Rochestarians need to speak up and do more to develop sustainable connections.

Mentoring an international student, for example, or inviting a few of them for a typical U.S. holiday like Thanksgiving is a good place to start. Rochester Global Connections, which has been providing cultural exchange programs since 1957, enables person-to-person connections, and engages dialogue and activities.

“Ask them what brought them here, not where they’re from,” Gatewood says.

At the end of each meeting, Novak tries to thank clients and show appreciation of their interest in living in the United States. It helps dilute the negative rhetoric around foreigners, he says.

Novak believes Rochestarians who see value in international students need to communicate with their congressional representatives, highlighting student achievements and their community impact.

“As good citizens, we should be speaking up when we feel our government is proposing immigration policies that (stifle) our access to innovative creativity from around the world,” Cox says. “When you feel some proposal is not beneficial,… speak up.”

The changes to immigration policies leave Tailor unfazed, for now. She stands by her belief that the U.S. is a land of opportunity.

“I got to learn so much,” Tailor says. “I didn’t learn in India, in four years (as an) undergrad, what I learned here. It’s (so) much.”

She plans to graduate in May, expects to take advantage of OPT, and is confident her STEM degree will hold her in good stead. Her parents are supportive of her decision to stay in the U.S.

“They surely don’t want me to come back until I want to go by myself,” Tailor says. “In fact, my parents have always been supportive of me and tell me there are other countries in the world where I can go and do whatever I want. If not America, then somewhere else.”

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