The Danger of Travel Restrictions to U.S. Universities

Trump International Student Travel Ban

Whenever I speak to someone in an institution’s International Admissions or Enrollment Department, one of the first things I ask them is, “What are your international enrollment goals?

Often, they tell me that they would like to increase their school’s international enrollment and diversity. College is the first opportunity many students have to engage with people from different backgrounds.

By experiencing diversity in college, students learn invaluable lessons in working with people of different nationalities and prepare themselves for working in today’s global society. And though many schools have the bulk of their students coming from two or three countries, they would like to recruit from new countries to give their domestic students greater exposure to the world.

What’s more, student diversity is a wise business decision. From a recruitment perspective, expanding international enrollment provides an institution with a financial safety net. This alternative revenue source can be used to bolster institutional coffers or offset domestic tuition rates. 


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The impact of travel restrictions

Why are travel restrictions so concerning to international student recruitment? 

Currently, citizens from six countries have been prohibited from entering the United States due to travel restrictions. These countries include Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Sudan and Somalia, and represent thousands of international students. In fact, those 6 countries had 15,453 students studying in the United States in 2015-16, the majority coming from Iran with 12,269.

International students already face many difficulties when deciding to come to another country for the sake of their education. They are moving thousands of miles from their friends and families, to a different land with different cultures, and dealing with language barriers as well. It can be daunting to say the least.

Why does this matter?

If even 10 percent of Saudis chose not to study in America, the projected economic loss could be close to $200 million, according to data from Benjamin Waxman, CEO of the international student recruiting firm Intead, and the Institute for International Education.

In fact, universities are already feeling an impact. Wright State University saw a decline of around 400 students, mostly from Saudi Arabia, during the fall 2016 semester. The decrease amounted to around a $10 million loss in revenue to the university.


Potential expansion of travel restrictions

Even if the above six countries do not make up a significant part of a school’s international student population, U.S. institutions still have good reason to be concerned.

At any time the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Homeland Security may submit the names of any additional countries recommended for similar travel restrictions. Most harmful would be travel restrictions against ChinaThe largest percentage of international students in the United States by far are from Chinawith over 300,000 students currently attending school here. If 10 percent of Chinese students chose not to study in America, the potential economic damage would be close to $1 billion, far worse than a decrease from Saudi Arabia. 

“There’s no question that higher education is one of the most important U.S. imports to China,” said Brad Setser, a former Treasury official. Yet, in a trade skirmish, Setser predicts Washington might shut off the spigot of Chinese students flowing to the U.S. “…concluding that the U.S. is educating too many Chinese students, which is serving to the benefit of China rather than the United States,” Setser said.

International Student Economic Benefit

The economic importance of international students

Not only would a decrease in international enrollment take a toll on a university’s revenue, but it could also impact domestic student tuition as well.

Tuition from foreign students helped offset the effects of state cuts to public university funding from 1996-2012. Without an influx of international students, it is likely that state universities would have had to make much larger tuition increases for in-state students.

For example, the University of Dayton, Wright State University, the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State combined to bring in more than $400 million in tuition from international students last year. At Wright State, international students pay almost 27 percent of the total tuition at the university, according to a report from SelfScore. Without the influx of students from overseas, SelfScore estimates that Wright State’s domestic students would pay $2,600 more a year in tuitiona 30.7 percent jump. And Ohio State’s domestic students would see their tuition increase by $3,651 annually. That’s more than a 36.1 percent increase!

Jeff Hancks, the interim director at the Center for International Studies at Western Illinois University where nearly 500 international students are enrolled, has already begun to see negative impacts and worries about the message that the travel restrictions send to international students. “We are concerned that international students are going to get the message that the United States doesn’t want them,” Hancks said. “We already have heard anecdotally that recruiting is picking up considerably from other English speaking countries…”

Were travel restrictions to significantly deter international students, or worse yet, expand to encompass more countries, the economic consequences could be devastating.


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What can be done

Fortunately, the educational community is not taking these dangers lightly.

A group of America’s leading universities, including Yale, Harvard and Stanford, filed papers in a Brooklyn federal court challenging current travel restrictions. The 17 institutions explained that as well as affecting current students and staff, including many stranded and unable to re-enter the U.S. in the immediate aftermath, travel restrictions hurt colleges’ ability to recruit international talent.

Stating that these types of restrictions have “serious and chilling implications.” The group highlighted a key consequence–that it, “casts doubt on the prospects, value of studying, and working here for everyone.” They pointed out that if students were worried about a visa being revoked “at any moment,” then they would not bring their skills to the U.S.

Only time will tell if this, or other actions, create any positive change. Or if international students will choose not to come to the United States due to travel restrictions. As things stand, current travel restrictions may put American universities at a disadvantage. Universities in other English speaking countries like Canada, Australia and England will not have to overcome these obstacles.

And once students from certain countries stop coming here, how will we ever entice them back?

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Patrick McCrystal

Patrick McCrystal

I'm a Business Development Manager of International at EducationDynamics. I enjoy reading about international affairs, reading and writing about marketing, and exploring all the history the city of Philadelphia has to offer. You may contact me directly at

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