Could President-elect Joe Biden make a commitment to welcoming international students to the United States a central component of repositioning the country abroad as an open, confident global leader?
That’s the argument Samantha Power, a former UN ambassador and current Harvard professor, makes in the current issue of Foreign Policy.
Biden should make a “major speech” emphasizing his administration’s commitment to international students and intent to work with American colleges to once again increase their enrollment numbers. There are few clearer signals of America’s foreign-policy re-engagement, she argues, than highlighting its open doors to talented students from around the world.
“American universities have a special place in the global imagination, and lowering the visa hurdles for study in the United States while creating better, more accessible pathways for international students to work in the United States after graduation can pay both short- and long-term dividends in expanding U.S. influence,” Power writes.
“It is hard to think of a more cost-effective way for Biden to reach global populations concerned about the direction of the United States than by celebrating the fact that the country is again welcoming bright young minds from around the world.”
Power does not suggest embracing students merely as a form of international imagemaking. She lays out a number of concrete steps the new administration could take to reverse skidding enrollments
, including issuing new guidance on how border officials should treat international students, ensuring that students won’t have to seek visa extensions
in the middle of their studies, and ordering a review of student-visa processing to improve transparency and eliminate unnecessary hurdles. She also calls for the reconstituting of the Homeland Security Academic Advisory Council, a group of university presidents and educational experts that previously advised DHS on its policies’ impact on foreign students, teaching, and academic research.
Some of Power’s suggestions to the new president — such as setting international-enrollment targets and seeking commitments from college leaders to recruit from parts of the world underrepresented on American campuses — could mark an unusual amount of presidential leadership in international education. It sounds almost like a national policy for international education, dare I say it?
Power asserts that initiatives to attract international students have, prior to President Trump, been without controversy, and there I differ. There always have been people who see international students as “taking” something from Americans or who erroneously believe that U.S. taxpayers subsidize foreign citizens’ education. In more than a decade covering this beat, I don’t think I’ve ever gone on a radio show without a caller complaining that an international student was taking the place of their son or daughter at the state university.
It’s indisputably true, though, that the Trump administration deepened those divides. Over the past four years, international-student policy has been politicized, and certain groups, such as Chinese students, have been caught up in broader geopolitical tensions. Which is why, if the president-elect were to deliver Power’s imagined speech, his audience can’t just be the rest of the world. It has to be aimed closer to home, too.
It’s not enough to communicate that the U.S. again welcomes international students. Biden will have to reaffirm to his fellow Americans that there is great value in having them here.
Know someone who cares about international education? Tell them about latitude(s). They can subscribe here.