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Anti-Immigrant Rhetoric Leads to Diminished College Enrollment

International student enrollment has dropped sharply and undocumented student enrollment has declined under Trump.

(Photo: Unsplash; Edited: LW / TO)

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Two-and-a-half years ago, when Margarita left her home in Venezuela to study in the US, she had high hopes. No one in her family had ever attended university, let alone studied abroad, and she relished the opportunity to perfect her English and complete a Bachelor’s degree.

Trump’s election changed that and Margarita says that she now worries about whether it is in her best interest to remain in the country. Despite having a student visa, she says that she’s always on edge. Nonetheless, she has decided to stay and finish her degree. “I want to make my dreams come true,” she told Truthout. “I do not want to leave something half-way, that is incomplete.” She expects to receive her undergraduate diploma in the spring of 2019.

Like most international students, Margarita is not eligible for financial aid and her family pays her tuition and living expenses out of pocket, in this case at $320 a credit. It’s a huge investment, and as bias incidents and hateful rhetoric about immigrants ramp up, many would-be international students are asking themselves if it makes sense to continue seeking a home in a place where they may not be wanted.

According to Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors, “The atmosphere — the increasing attacks on Jewish centers, cemeteries, Muslim mosques and the recent murder of two Sikhs in Kansas City — means that many international students are deciding to stay away from the US and are instead attending colleges in Canada, Australia or Europe.”

A Large Decline in International Student Applicants to the US

Indeed, some Canadian colleges are experiencing a 70 percent bump in their number of international applicants. At the same time, the decline in international student applications to US programs has been precipitous: 40 percent of US colleges told Inside Higher Education in early March that there has been a sharp drop in both undergraduate and graduate applications from foreign students for fall 2017. The biggest dip has come from China, India and the Middle East.

The reasons? Fear about the ability to reenter the country after trips home and apprehension about community acceptance.

Dr. Reza Fakhari, vice president for workforce development and strategic community partnerships and continuing education at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York (CUNY) — my workplace — explains the impact. “Some US graduate programs can collapse without international students,” he begins. “Some, particularly in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, have a large percentage of students who come from other countries. The fear factor among these students is huge. The Trump administration’s [leaders] … do not want the country to be diverse. In fact, they actually want to reverse diversity…. It’s at odds with reality not to see diversity as enrichment.”

But Trump, Bannon and the Republicans disagree and have made clear that they see multiculturalism as a threat to American hegemony and cultural continuity.

Some of the Colleges That Stand to Lose

A year ago, during the 2015-2016 academic year, 33 percent of the students at the Florida Institute of Technology came from outside the US; 32 percent of those enrolled at the New School for Social Research were international. Other colleges and universities with large international student populations include the Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Tulsa (26 percent); Carnegie Mellon (22 percent); Brandeis and Northeastern (20 percent); UCLA (13 percent); Brown, Harvard, Rice and the University of Pennsylvania (12 percent); Princeton and Yale (11 percent); and Cornell, Duke, George Washington, Johns Hopkins and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (10 percent).

As CUNY’s Dean Fakhari makes clear, STEM fields stand to be the biggest losers: 70 percent of electrical engineering, 63 percent of computer science, and half of all math, physics and statistics students entering master’s level programs in the US come from abroad. And, he stresses, their presence benefits everyone since they contribute an estimated $30.5 billion to the economy and support 373,000 domestic jobs.

Colleges recognize this and are trying to fight back, noting that the potential loss of these students — and the money they bring with them — will threaten their budgets and lessen intellectual collegiality. Although it’s largely unprecedented, the presidents of more than 650 of the country’s 4140 public and private colleges have signed onto a letter to John F. Kelley, Secretary of Homeland Security, that was sent on February 3. “International exchange is a core value and strength of American higher education,” they wrote. “Moreover, our nation’s welcoming stance to scholars and scientists has benefited the US through goodwill and a long history of scientific and technological advances that have been essential to the economic growth our country has experienced for decades.” To date, Homeland Security has not responded to the appeal.

Some Undocumented Students Are Not Applying or Returning to College

International students are not the only constituency whose numbers are declining. Overall, college enrollment went from a peak of 20.6 million in 2011 to less than 19 million today — a fact that predates Trump. Some have opted to enter the workforce or have enlisted in the military instead of continuing in school. In addition, undocumented students — with and without Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival or DACA status — are also noticeably staying away, not applying at all, or not returning to complete their courses of study. Although this population was never huge — reaching a total of approximately 225,000 in 2015 — many universities across the country are responding to the heightened anxieties expressed by both undocumented undergraduates and the much larger pool of 5.1 million US citizens who live in mixed-status households with someone at risk of deportation.

“The fear is in the airwaves,” says Rev. Juan Carlos Ruiz, a pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York City and a founder of the New Sanctuary Movement. “Financial aid to low-income immigrants was never adequate, but the systemic oppression that has always existed has been compounded by Trump. Right now, we’re working with five students whose parents have been detained. One has an eight-year-old brother with special needs. This student may now need to become the family breadwinner. I’ve also seen some people decide to pack up and leave rather than live in danger and fear. They feel humiliated that they worked and paid taxes and are now being treated so badly.”

Living and Studying Under the Threat of Deportation

Pamela Johnson, interim vice president for enrollment management at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, a Catholic college established more than a century ago to educate the Irish immigrants then working in the area’s lead mines, says that about 10 percent of the school’s 2,300 undergraduates are directly impacted by administration policies on immigration. “The DACA students, in particular, feel vulnerable,” she says. “They’ve given all this personal information to the government. Some have told us that they plan to move so that the address on file is no longer where they live. The anxiety is really high.”

John DeCostanza, director of university ministry at Dominican, adds that as soon as the first executive order banning immigrants from Muslim-dominant countries was issued in January, pastoral counseling staff noticed a spike in the number of students calling for appointments. “Rumors of raids in Chicago were rampant, and in order to be good stewards and provide accurate and adequate care to our students, we’ve had to lean heavily on immigrant advocacy organizations working on the ground. They’ve provided us with the verification we need about ICE activity in and around Chicago,” he says.

Good pastoral care, he continues, revolves around helping students grapple with the reality of the threat. It also involves learning their rights so that they can create the best possible plan to protect themselves and their loved ones. “The best source of protection is their own planning,” DeCostanza continues. “They need to talk to their families and the people they’re in community with about their options.” This is a conversation that families often avoid, he added, especially when it involves discussing who will get custody of a US-born child if one or both parents are deported.

Like most DACA recipients or students in mixed-status households, he says, those enrolled at Dominican feel a deep sense of responsibility toward their parents and siblings and are committed to helping younger family members in whatever ways are needed. “The psychological burden that comes with that responsibility cannot be overestimated,” he adds.

Not surprisingly, these responsibilities weigh heavily, and impact the number of applications coming from undocumented students and those living in mixed-status homes. They also impact retention. “CUNY students tell us that they feel safe on campus,” Dean Reza Fakhari reports. “But on the bus or the train, they feel afraid. One student told me that he has stopped driving because he’s so scared of being stopped.”

The disquiet and dread these students feel can make college attendance seem impossible. After all, how can they concentrate on writing papers, complete course readings, begin a research project, or participate in in-class discussions when the possibility of deportation looms over everything?

“We can’t trust this administration to be rational,” Fakhari concludes. “Will there be a Muslim registry? Will they or a loved one be deported? Who will take care of the children? We’ve already seen the number of international student applicants go down for next fall throughout CUNY. People are either afraid to apply or assume they’ll never get a visa so don’t even try. Undocumented students are also avoiding risks because, while the law protects their right to attend high school, it does not ensure their right to go beyond 12th grade.”

Indeed, he says, the administration’s contempt for diversity is at the heart of the administration’s anti-immigrant efforts. After all, 40 years ago, only 4 percent of college students were Latino and Latina; 2 percent were Asian; 10 percent were African American; and 84 percent were white. By 2014, Latinos and Latinas were 17 percent of the total college student population; Asians were 7 percent; and African Americans were 14 percent. Meanwhile, white enrollment fell to 58 percent. This trend could reverse, however, if racist sentiment under the Trump administration continues to discourage international students from entering the US and to deter immigrants from continuing their studies.

“Racism is resurfacing and immigrants everywhere in the country are feeling the uncertainty,” Fakhari says.

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