The Near- and Long-Term Costs of a More Parochial America for International Education

As this is written, an appellate court in the United States awaits oral arguments from attorneys representing the Trump Administration, on one hand, and officials of the state government of Washington, on the other hand, over the former’s issuance of a short-term and indefinite ban on entry and immigration from seven countries. The outcome of the hearing is uncertain.

But regardless of the results of this particular legal debate, it seems abundantly clear that President Trump is resolute in seeking ways to what he sees as protecting the United States from persons of non-American origin intent on carrying out terrorist acts once they are on American soil. This was, after all, one of the centerpieces to his campaign for the presidency. 

Moreover, he can cite what he views as precedents for such an action. Constitutional scholars can and do differ on the powers granted presidents to deal, first and more generally, with insuring national security and, second, with the specific question of the extent to which the executive branch may carry out its duties with respect to the exclusion of aliens.∗

The outcome of this particular matter is important, but regardless of its outcome the time seems right to give serious thought to the impact of American actions and policies on international education. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has been the recipient of large-scale immigration and has become the nation with the largest international student population. As noted in the pages of this journal (Skinner, 2015) entire disciplines such as engineering have become recipients of international graduate students and professors, whose absence would likely decimate programs of study and research. Indeed, individual universities attract, enroll, and graduate substantial numbers of international students and that fact has become an attraction to both American and other international students alike. Their absence would have real, tangible impact for those institutions.

But in thinking about the impact of an America that is both more nationalist in orientation and skeptical (if not downright fearful) of the presence of large numbers of international students and faculty members, there is something else at risk for what has, until now perhaps, been a burgeoning international education development. 

Elsewhere (Skinner, 2017), I have sought to make the case that diversity within higher education, including the leadership of its institutions, is much more than a legal or a moral matter, more than an issue of compliance for universities and colleges. Diversity – all the more so when it embraces an international component – is an institutional asset, a source of intellectual strength that enriches educational, scholarly, research, and service missions. In a manner akin to that accruing to biodiverse environments, human diversity in an academic setting has been and remains the basis for a fuller exposition of ideas and the testing of theories and hypotheses with universal potential to help us understand the world.

So if the United States withdraws somewhat from its position in that world, what might be the impact on international education? 

Early signs are that scholars and potential students will be less likely to spend some or an entire life in America and, instead, seek out other places in which to study, teach, and research. Candidates to replace the United States include Australia, Canada, Britain (albeit, that country’s attractiveness may diminish with Brexit), Japan, Germany, and Russia, particularly because several of these countries have aging populations and need younger, better-educated employees to fill the ranks.

But do not doubt that students and faculty from around the globe will find places in which they can study and research. The present is an age of learning in which you either learn or you will not work and you will need to continue to learn throughout one’s working life and beyond. If America is no longer beckoning the best and brightest from abroad, other countries also know the critical importance of talent to their well-being and will seek out those students. 

And since the capacity of most countries’ higher education systems are more limited than that of the United States, the likely distribution of international students and faculty will be more dispersed and less American-centric, and this may be a good thing for these persons and the knowledge and innovation they produce as they contribute potentially to a greater whole.

The possibility exists that international education less dominated by American universities could foster new ways of organizing learning less bound by a decidedly-American industrial age“ time-in-class” approach to accounting for students and faculty members’ “workloads”.

The prominence of “public intellectuals” in societies other than the United States might serve to elevate the professoriate to positions from which the influence of academicians is expanded and, for example, the limitations of liberal democracy and market-based economies – matters of genuine importance – are the grist of professors who speak and write to “lay” audiences” and not only academic disciplines. “Great minds,” after all, “are terrible things to waste,” all the more so when they reflect a perspective made wider and richer by living and working in a society other than one’s own.

And what of the costs to an America less diverse in composition and more parochial about the world beyond its borders?

For a time, the impact of fewer international students, researchers, and professors will seem slight, small enough in immediate impact to make for poignant press coverage of foreign students unable to clear immigration at American airports. After all, decades passed before the scope and importance of international education assumed the prominence it enjoys today. Two decades ago, some colleges and universities actively recruited international students and faculty members; now, virtually all do and those who were successful will likely feel their loss.

Technology firms have been among the first to protest the Trump executive order and they will feel the impact of not having as large a pool of talented international students ready to carry out internships.

But it is in the longer run that America’s withdrawal or at least its early actions to retreat from prominence in international education will have its fullest effect. Business and industry relies on the ability to recruit and retain the best talent for employment. To date, native Americans have not been available in sufficient number to fill the positions needed. Should that continue, those firms will look elsewhere for needed talent and compete with other countries for those employees.

Fields of engineering, some of the health sciences, computer science and information technology, the basic sciences such as physics, and others have come to depend on foreign students and professors and they will feel the loss of those persons if they opt to go elsewhere than America. Notwithstanding the remarkable capacity to work collaboratively across national boundaries, certain professions and fields of study will struggle without colleagues from abroad physically on campuses.

Early on in the American era of war with Vietnam and again in Iraq after 2002, the lack of understanding – even of language proficiency – of other cultures became painfully and tragically obvious. The lesson some took from those experiences is for the United State to avoid “foreign entanglements” and there is more than an element of truth to that nostrum. 

But another lesson might be to engage other peoples and their countries on “safer ground”: around seminar tables and in lecture hall seats, in pages and with voices (this latter probably requiring frequent clarifications of meaning). The remarkable growth of international education was never going to be a guarantee of amicable relations among nations, but it did and does have the potential to make impulsive decisions and reflex actions at least a bit less likely if only because such education teaches one to reflect before acting. That potential is not diminished by an America less-engaged with the rest of the world, but it does make it different.


Cornell University School of Law Legal Information Institute (

Skinner, Richard A. (2017) “Getting personal in the search for campus leaders,” THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, February 3 issue.

Skinner, Richard A. (2015), “American engineering doctoral enrollments,” INTERNATIONAL HIGHER EDUCATION, Number 72.


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