NYU claims top marks as international student host—but with a catch

The Institute of International Education (IEE), a leading nonprofit focused on International Student Exchange, Aid, Foreign Affairs, and International Peace & Security, released its annual “Open Doors” report on November 13, 2017, ranking New York University as the top U.S. university for international students by enrollment. Year-over-year, NYU’s complement of international students across all schools grew by nearly 11 percent to 17,326.

As members of the greater NYU community, we know the University prides itself on its heterogeneity. It’s what led to Lisa Coleman’s appointment as NYU’s first Chief Diversity Officer. Likewise, NYU’s commitment to diversity is what informed the Being@NYU assessment, the creation of the Bias Response Line, and University President Andy Hamilton’s periodic updates on NYU’s goal to be more inclusive.

Of course, in the center of a global hub like New York, it’s easy for us to talk about the value of diversity—after all, it’s been part of the city’s DNA for decades. That’s not to say that New Yorkers don’t suffer from acts of bigotry—both overt and subconscious—but among those of us to whom New York City is an adopted home (Americans included), it can be dangerously easy to overlook the broader cultural trend against diversity in higher education, and, for that matter, against diversity of any kind.

While NYU’s ranking with regard to international student enrollment is a point of pride for our community, it’s important to view IIE’s entire report in context. Taken as a whole, the results of the report are much more sobering. On the afternoon of its publication, Buzzfeed reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy boiled it down to a stunning headline: “Fewer International Students are Coming to the US.” It was the first such decline “in more than a decade.”

While the IIE’s report draws no conclusion about the cause of the decline, its results coincide neatly with the university application cycle immediately following Donald Trump’s election last November.

“The election of Donald Trump last fall prompted widespread fears that foreign students might be deterred from enrolling in US colleges, where, because they usually pay full tuition, they are often a vital source of revenue,” Hensley-Clancy wrote. “It’s not clear, however, whether the election and Trump’s rhetoric, or other factors—like increased competition from other Western nations—are driving declines.”

The IIE’s report indicated that some foreign governments have sharply reduced financial aid offers to students wishing to study internationally—notably Saudi Arabia and Brazil. With that said, there’s also evidence that East Asian and South Asian students may be forgoing applications to U.S. institutions in favor of Canadian and Australian universities.

Documenting the shift in applicant preferences, Inside Higher Ed reported earlier in 2017 that, “At a time when American universities are reporting declines in applications from international students, some universities north of the border are seeing increases on the magnitude of 20 percent or more.” A corresponding study of 250 U.S. universities, published in March, indicated that, “nearly 40 percent of US colleges are seeing declines in applications from international students, and international student recruitment professionals report ‘a great deal of concern’ from students and their families about visas and perceptions of a less welcoming climate in the US.”

Despite the disturbing trends outlined in university surveys and the IIE’s report, there are more international students in the United States now than at any point in our history—nearly 1.1 million. That figure remains high in part due to international students remaining in the states for post-graduate opportunities. So, in some ways the American higher-ed system remains the envy of the world—for now.

Can we empirically prove that Donald Trump’s election is the cause of the decline? Probably not. Yet the President himself implores us to “be smart” and to “get tough” with regard to visas and immigration. By every measure of his own “common sense” rubric, the President decisively fails as a leader—daily denigrating the extraordinary legacy of American power and influence in spheres educational, political, and societal.

Trump’s shocking abdication of American stewardship may be undetectable to those of us in educational and cultural meccas like New York City, but its ultimate results are no less insidious. Fortunately, NYU has continued to prove its mettle, excelling in international outreach and diversity initiatives. Hopefully, other U.S. universities will find the means and the will to follow suit.

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