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The Discarded International Students Rule and Trump's Agenda

An earlier version of this commentary piece appeared in The Hill.

Forget for a moment the capriciousness of President Trump's now-abandoned plan to strip international students of their visas once their colleges and universities shift to remote instruction. Forget the anti-immigrant animus that seems to motivate the plan to send home some of the smartest students in the world.

Consider instead the most sympathetic rationale for the Trump administration’s rule on student visas: The president wants students back on campuses this fall, he wants life and the U.S. economy to return to normal in the hopes of energizing his flagging reelection effort.

Removing international students was not going to accomplish those goals.

The 1.1 million international college students across the nation contributed nearly $41 billion to the U.S. economy and supported nearly 460,000 jobs during the 2018-2019 school year, according to the Association of International Educators. For universities in red states and blue, these students represent a key source of revenue, often paying full tuition rates rather than the discounted prices other students receive.

A full third of students at Fort Hays State University in Kansas come from outside the country, as do 28 percent of those at the Florida Institute of Technology and 16 percent at Oklahoma’s University of Tulsa, according to an analysis by U.S. News. At Georgetown University, where we’re affiliated, it's 14 percent.

Losing these students would have brought deeper cuts to institutions already bleeding red from the pandemic. Many colleges have already cut staff: Higher education employed 19,000 fewer workers in March 2020 than in February. Some campuses could be forced to close for good.

Invariably these losses would fall harder on support staff — the janitors, cafeteria workers and maintenance staff, the sorts of workers Trump claims to champion — rather than on professors with tenure. In many cases, these colleges are economic anchors for small towns and rural communities that suffer when jobs are lost and spending tapers off.

Blue collar job losses and sputtering communities would do nothing to promote Trump’s goals of restoring the nation’s prosperity. Nor would forcing colleges to change course on reopening plans crafted carefully over the past few months now that COVID-19 cases are surging among a younger population.

Along with barring students whose schools are entirely virtual, the now-rescinded rule from Immigration and Customs Enforcement would have required schools using hybrid models to confirm in the new few weeks that each international student is meeting the in-person hours required to stay in the country. That would have been a complex administrative undertaking on a short timeline for schools already low on staff and busy planning their health and safety protocols for the fall.

As of this week, 9 percent of the nearly 1,100 colleges, whose reopening plans The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking, are planning online-only semesters and 27 percent are proposing hybrid models. Meaning a third of colleges would have to adjust their fall plans or lose a sizable portion of their students — and their revenue — under the president's visa proposal.

As Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out in the complaint filed with their lawsuit last week, it was too close to the beginning of the semester for schools to change their plans or for international students to submit transfer applications to other schools. During a hearing Tuesday on a temporary restraining order, lawyers for ICE said they were backing away from the policy.

Educators worried that the new rule would lead international students to sit out the semester or, more likely, take their talents to schools in Canada, Germany and other countries where there are fewer coronavirus cases. The American Council on Education was predicting a 25 percent decline in enrollment of international students due to the pandemic, even before ICE released its new rule.

Now that it has abandoned this misguided approach, the federal government could take action that would actually help higher education institutions and the many communities nationwide for whom they are economic engines.

Congress provided a modicum of support: $14 billion for higher education in the CARES Act stimulus bill approved in March. But much of that money went directly to students. The transition to virtual learning — along with refunds for student parking, housing and meal plans — meant losses that exceeded the money that institutions received from Congress.

[Read More: What Congressional Covid Funding Means for K-12 Schools]

In mid-May, the House passed a second wave of stimulus funding with about $37 billion for higher education in the HEROES Act. In late June, Democratic senators proposed a plan to provide $132 billion to keep colleges and universities running during the pandemic.

Republican Senate leaders have promised to consider another stimulus bill when they return from a two-week recess July 20. By providing resources to sustain a critical sector of the economy through the current crisis, they can begin to accomplish what Trump’s attack on international students won't.

Phyllis W. Jordan is FutureEd's editorial director and Brooke LePage is the policy associate.