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Countering a Misconception

Over the years, as I’ve done radio call-in shows and public presentations, no single question has come up as frequently: Is the growth in international students in the U.S. coming at the expense of Americans?

In many ways, it’s a natural concern: Legislators have an obligation to fund a public-college education for their residents. Parents worry there will be fewer spaces in university classrooms for their children. 

But as a new study examining nearly three decades of enrollment data makes clear, not only are international students not crowding out Americans, their presence leads to an increase in bachelor’s degrees in STEM majors awarded to U.S. students.

The analysis of nationwide enrollment and degree data collected by the U.S. Department of Education between 1990 and 2018 found that increased enrollment of international undergraduates had no significant impact — either positive or negative — on the number of U.S. students enrolled, on average.

However, for every 10 additional bachelor’s degrees, across all majors, awarded to international students, colleges awarded 15 more STEM degrees to American undergraduates, the IPEDS data showed.

The paper was authored by Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at the University of North Florida and a research fellow at the National Foundation for American Policy. (NFAP is a nonpartisan think tank that has generally favored a more open immigration policy.) 

Zavodny told me that international students don’t displace Americans because U.S. colleges, in general, have plenty of capacity. 

“You hear it a lot,” she said of crowding out, “but unless your local university is Harvard, it’s probably not true.”

Colleges were able to increase international enrollments in recent years by expanding their undergraduate student bodies or because of declining numbers of local graduates, as I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago. Our analysis of state flagships and large public research universities also found that, with few exceptions, international students were not pushing out Americans.

Zavodny’s research did find that a larger population of international students meant that the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to white women increased less. That does not mean the number of degrees awarded to white women declined, Zavodny noted, but that the number of female graduates may have grown even faster without more international classmates. White women enroll in and graduate from college more than other demographic groups.

As for the relationship between international enrollments and U.S. STEM degrees, Zavodny speculates that it may be because colleges devote more resources — such as improved facilities or more faculty hiring — to science and technology fields that appeal to international students, making them more attractive to domestic students as well.

Engineering, mathematics and computer science, and business are the most popular majors for international students. 

Zavodny examined 1,234 colleges in the IPEDS database, excluding for-profits, community colleges, and institutions that did not consistently report data across the period studied. Her analysis did not include graduate programs, which enroll disproportionate shares of international students in STEM fields.

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New on Foreign Research Investigations

From calls for an expedited trial for Harvard professor Charles Lieber to new U.S. government disclosure requirements, there is a lot going on related to international research integrity. Here’s a round-up:

Beginning in May, applicants for National Institutes of Health grants will have to include copies of foreign contracts and agreements and translate those not in English. Applicants will also need to certify that information they have reported about foreign funding is correct.

Lawyers for Lieber, the Harvard professor accused of lying to the U.S. government about his ties to China, are asking that his trial be expedited because he has advanced cancer. Because of incurable lymphoma and deteriorating health, Lieber “frankly does not have time for delay, procrastination, and stalling,” his lawyer told a judge. The Harvard Crimson previews some of the arguments in his case.

A federal judge has dismissed most of the counts in a lawsuit brought by Xi Xiaoxing, a Temple University physcist prosecuted by the U.S. government for allegedly sharing research secrets with China, only to have the charges dismissed. The FBI’s actions in Xi’s case were “unfortunate” but constitutional, the judge wrote. In the lawsuit, Xi had accused the FBI of making false and reckless claims against him. His lawyers plan to appeal the ruling.

The American Physical Society has written to Attorney General Merrick Garland to express concern about the recent investigations against scientists, many of whom are of Chinese descent. In particular, they singled out the arrest of Gang Chen, an MIT professor accused of concealing payments from China. “The appearance of targeting academics who are from or who have collaborated with colleagues in China has racial overtones that deeply affect our community,” the group writes. 

More Vaccine Requirements

Duke, Northeastern, and Notre Dame are among the latest colleges to say they will require students to be vaccinated to return to campus this fall. Of particular interest to me was the Northeastern decision — the university is second only to NYU in the number of international students it enrolls.

In its announcement, Northeastern said it will “require proof of inoculation with vaccines that are approved in the country where the campus the student is attending is located.” (The university also has campuses in Canada and the UK.) Northeastern specifically acknowledged international students in its policy, saying that it will assist international students who have not been vaccinated before arriving on campus with the inoculation process.

International students present a special wrinkle when it comes to vaccine mandates — as the American Council on Education notes in a recent issue brief, worldwide vaccine distribution is uneven, with many African, Asian, and Latin American countries having vaccinated less than 2 percent of their population. In other countries, students have access to vaccines, but not those authorized in the U.S. 

As the logistics become clearer, I’m interested in hearing about policies institutions develop for international students: How will colleges navigate the time crunch if students can’t be vaccinated until they arrive on campus? Will exemptions be made for students who have received non-U.S.-approved vaccines? I’m at latitudesnews@gmail.com or on Twitter and LinkedIn.

My colleagues at the Chronicle are tracking colleges’ vaccine requirements.

Meanwhile, two states, Texas and Utah, have prohibited public colleges from mandating vaccines. And in a QS survey of 2,500 current and prospective international students, half agreed that universities should require students to have been vaccinated before they travel to campus.

Around the Globe

President Biden proposes making undocumented students eligible to receive Pell Grants in his discretionary budget.

The administration wants to massively expand funding for the National Science Foundation to help the U.S. out-innovate China.

For the Chronicle, I wrote about whether anti-Asian racism will compound colleges’ already significant international recruitment challenges. (Free registration required.)

College leaders in New York state are urging the U.S. government to expedite student-visa processing and reduce other barriers to international students.

The pandemic was bad for international-student mobility, this paper argues, but U.S. government policy made it worse.

Schools and universities in Syria have closed indefinitely as coronavirus cases surge.

Some Australian universities are so desperate for international students’ return that they have offered to fly students in and pay for their quarantine.

When it comes to Confucius Institutes, the Biden administration “should disaggregate legitimate national security concerns, including Chinese espionage and technology theft, from academic freedom issues that are best left to our universities.”

International-ed groups issue a statement of solidarity with students and academics in Myanmar.

Scholars at Risk details a pattern of wrongful prosecutions, surveillance, intimidation, and use of force against Thai higher education.

Researchers on China face increasingly personal attacks.

A populist party in the Netherlands has set up a hotline for reports and videos of “left-wing indoctrination” by university lecturers.

France’s Senate approved a measure to ban prayers and other religious practices on university campuses.

No, American academic ideas aren’t corrupting France.

And finally…

Congratulations to…me. I’ve been named the University of Denver’s 2021 Morton L. Margolin Distinguished Lecturer, an honor it gives to one journalist each year. I’ll be speaking this Friday, April 16, at 1 p.m. MT, as part of an internationalization summit organized by the university. As one of the upsides of this pandemic time, the daylong summit — which is jampacked with exciting speakers — will be broadcast via Zoom, and I hope you’ll join us. You read more about the summit, including a detailed schedule, and register here.

’Til next week —Karin

A freelance journalist and expert on global issues in higher ed, Karin has been writing for more than a decade about the changing relationship between American colleges and the world.