Last week, the Trump administration issued an ICE directive stating that international students in the United States on the most common visas would be deported if their colleges remained online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yesterday, ICE rescinded the new rules as abruptly as they had been issued. Lawsuits and briefs filed by scores of colleges and state attorneys general, coupled with a groundswell of popular opposition, forced Trump to back down for now.
Yet Trump’s vindictive order — which combined crude nativism, pandemic denialism, and resentful anti-intellectualism into one swift action — still proved a powerful point. For a moment, schools were forced to choose between risking the lives of their students, faculties, and communities, and losing their international students. These students, Trump proved beyond a doubt, could be used as political pawns. And the schools chock full of “liberal elites” who criticize him would feel the heat in the process.
Despite Trump’s decision to rescind the order — an enormous victory — it will not be the last anti-immigrant action. This is a White House pervaded by uncommon cruelty, and Trump is facing an uphill reelection bid. But let’s take a step back: how did international students end up as bargaining chips in the first place, not just as individuals but as money-makers vital to the survival of American universities?
Neoliberal Problems, Neoliberal Solutions
Over the last two decades, states have consistently slashed spending on public colleges and universities. Between 1996 and 2012 state funding dropped by about 10 percent. The Great Recession gave states an opportunity to turbocharge austerity. Lawmakers imposed cuts, and then simply never reversed them: funding currently sits $9 billion below its pre–recession level.
In search of new revenue streams, colleges met a neoliberal problem (austerity) with a neoliberal solution (corporate globalization). As state spending fell, international tuition dollars at public universities jumped by 12 percent. Tuition from international students now makes up 28 percent of public university revenue, 40 percent more than it did a decade ago.
Colleges have not hidden this shift. In fact, they have touted it as a marketable form of diversity and multiculturalism. Schools promise applicants a “global perspective” that American students can use to get ahead in business and “take advantage of global trends.”
But colleges rarely follow this shallow front-end endorsement with meaningful efforts to support and integrate international students. One research university chancellor even admitted in 2018 that having a large international student body is “a wonderful way of maintaining America’s power.”
Trump Rattles the Status Quo
Since 2008, many colleges have settled into this happy, if tentative, new normal. State funding never recovered, faculty hiring remained stagnant, but revenue grew on the backs of international students.
Like other parts of the neoliberal status quo, however, Trump’s election shook the scheme at its foundations. Anti-immigrant rage fueled Trump’s ascendance to power, and many of the most powerful actors in his administration are consumed with nativism. Trump himself rails against college professors that “are about Radical Left Indoctrination, not Education.”
With the international students directive, Trump found an opportunity to lash out in several directions at once. Excluding foreign students from American universities played into his nativist brand and the American right’s Sinophobia. Dealing colleges a crushing blow allowed Trump to get back at an object of his ire. And pushing colleges into dangerous re-openings, in the name of their own survival, enabled him to advance his goal of restoring normalcy ahead of the November election.
International students, of course, would have born the brunt of Trump’s order. Even in the best of circumstances they would have faced extremely difficult logistical hurdles trying to maintain online course load abroad. Many would have been forced into situations with unreliable shelter or internet; graduate students who supported themselves and loved ones through fellowships would have been cut off upon deportation.
On the university side, smaller local public colleges in particular would have faced financial ruin: for many of these schools, an online semester without international revenue would mean an imminent closure.
The Trump administration’s about-face on the order is a much-needed reprieve. International students and colleges can breathe a sigh of relief. But both were susceptible for a simple reason: the privatization of universities.
Protecting Students, Not Revenue
The clearest short-term solution to the higher education crisis is a massive renewal of public funding. Many regional universities — which disproportionately serve working-class students — operate at razor-thin margins, and additional budget cuts or tuition increases would be catastrophic.
In the long term, if colleges do not want to see international students (or any other group of students) used as pawns because of their tuition dollars, schools will need to fundamentally rethink their mission and purpose. American colleges have become a business.
This is true on the “elite” end, where ballooning tuitions and admissions hurdles have turned into a race to nowhere, and at “non-selective” entry points, where students are roped into for-profit colleges that, as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has shown, feed off rampant credentialism in the contemporary job market to pressure students into educations that leave them with little but debt. This trend has been fueled by a national, top-down shift toward applied, metrics-driven, “education for profit” that threatens the mission of building an educational system capable of fostering democracy.
The fix for this is more complicated. But if colleges tempered their expectations of revenue generation and growth, and if they could rely on a stable and robust stream of state funding, they would be better positioned to serve their students — and shield them from powerful demagogues.