Current attention is focused on the fallout of the coronavirus on international enrollments, but it doesn’t take a global pandemic to affect student numbers. A new working paper
examines the link between U.S. visa-refusal rates and international enrollments. It finds that a higher anticipated refusal rate decreases the number of international students taking the SAT, the number who send their scores to American colleges, and the number who enroll in the U.S. And the decline is larger among higher-performing students.
I talked with two of the authors — Mingyu Chen, a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University, and Jonathan Smith, an assistant professor of economics at Georgia State University — about their findings. “If students perceive the likelihood of successfully attaining an F-1 visa decreases, they are less likely to invest in the entire process,” they told me. Here are excerpts from our exchange:
High-scoring test takers are twice as responsive to more restrictive visa policies than low scorers. Can you walk me through a few reasons why visa restrictions may affect them disproportionately?
Here are just two examples. First, high-scoring test takers are more likely to have other options outside the U.S., including in their home country. Hence, when they see their chance of coming to the U.S. decline, they are more likely to invest their limited resources in other options. Second, high-scoring test takers may use the information on visa restrictiveness differently from low-scoring students. For example, they may have better access to the information and are better at calculating the expected benefit of completing the college application and visa process.
Your findings suggest tighter policy actually makes students less likely to take the SAT and, for those who do take it, less likely to send their scores to U.S. colleges. Why do you think restrictive policies affect students’ behavior that much earlier in the admissions process? Does it say something about the importance of students’ perceptions of visa restrictions on their choices?
Yes. In fact, our estimates are largely about the impact of this visa restrictiveness on students’ perceptions as opposed to the “mechanical” effect of stricter policy reducing visas and the number of international students. Because of the uncertainty of obtaining an F-1 visa and how the visa process works, students must pay a substantial cost to apply to U.S. colleges and for visas before learning the outcome of their F-1 visa application. The cost includes the time and money spent, as well as psychological stress. A lower anticipated chance of obtaining a student visa can, therefore, decrease the expected benefit of taking the SAT and sending test scores.
What does your research contribute to the narrative around international students?
There is a narrative that international students pay full tuition and help subsidize domestic students’ education, which is largely true. However, our paper shows that narrative misses an important point about international students. We show that the U.S. receives students with very good academic records, on average. At places where we can measure SAT scores, international students have higher average SAT scores than their domestic peers, even at the same institution.
What are related questions you might explore next?
We plan to use the same data to explore how and why international students choose to attend specific colleges. Our current paper simply looks at attending the U.S. in aggregate and looking at specific types of institutions (e.g., selective and non-selective, public and private, urban and rural) may prove useful for colleges and universities when setting policy and tuition. Dr. Chen also has several other projects
related to international students. In one of his papers, he runs a large-scale field experiment and a survey to study how employers in China value U.S. college degrees versus domestic degrees. He finds that U.S.-educated candidates are less likely to receive a callback, with very selective U.S. institutions underperforming the least selective U.S. institutions. Another ongoing project estimates the program-specific financial contribution of international students and the causal impact of international undergraduate enrollment on U.S. public universities. He finds that when universities face state funding cuts and gain revenue from international students, they use the money to maintain or expand seats for in-state students while keeping the per-student spending constant.
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