Talent Management
January 21, 2020

America is Losing Billions as Foreign Student Enrollment Plummets, Hurting Employment and the Economy

For proponents of the hotly debated and controversial policies on border walls, Brexit, enhanced vetting procedures for citizenships, mass deportations, new forms of identification, and other crackdowns on immigration around the world, staving off the perceived influx of foreign-born people rests at the heart of the issue. But is that a good thing? Is it productive? Few people on either side of the aisle will argue that reform isn’t needed. However, the current global approach seems less about reform and more about cessation—without a serious conversation over the ramifications. As a result of current political rhetoric and actions, foreign students have essentially stopped enrolling in U.S. universities. And that’s costing the economy billions, not to mention strengthening the chokehold that already exists on access to candidates with in-demand skills. Is this truly a solution or the gateway to new problems?

American Universities Feeling the Pain of Anti-immigration Stance

As Evelina Nedlund reported for CNN, “The continued decline in international student enrollment since the fall of 2016 has cost the US economy $11.8 billion and more than 65,000 jobs, according to estimates from NAFSA: Association of International Educators, an international association of professional educators.”

“There's a perception among international students that getting a visa for the United States is more difficult,” she added, “and they increasingly feel unsafe in America, NAFSA survey data show.”

New international student enrollments declined by 0.9% during the 2018-2019 academic year, following a 6.6% decline in new enrollments in the year prior, according to the most recent US Department of State Open Doors report. This marks the first time the United States has seen a three-year decline.

The cost of plummeting enrollment numbers brings with it a tremendous impact.

  • At Cal State University Northridge, the decrease in students has led to a 26% loss in revenues—or about $6.5 million.
  • International students contributed nearly $41 million to the U.S. economy and supported 458,290 jobs during the 2018-2019 academic year.
  • The average tuition for foreign students at schools like Peninsula College in Washington State is $10,000 per year. For in-state students, it’s half that. That university has experienced a 25% drop in international student enrollment, resulting in the elimination of 13 staff positions and suspension of programs from the $800,000 deficit produced by waning matriculation.

What about employers? “For every seven international students, three US jobs are created or supported by spending in sectors including higher education, accommodations, dining, retail, and transportation, according to NAFSA,” Nedlund said.

Anti-Immigration Is Anti-Opportunity

Prior to the mad rush to re-allocate funding from U.S. education and infrastructure projects to the construction of a border wall, Britain was already establishing a precedent to stifle immigration. The British Exit, or Brexit, was promoted as a referendum on the shortcomings of the European Union (EU). To many younger Britons, those unable to vote, it became a referendum on youth, culture, and diversity. For some time, older Brits and traditionalist leaders in neighboring countries had made cases for isolationism predicated on anti-immigration and anti-Islamic attitudes. These polemics culminated in the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU. The issues also encompassed gender parity, LGBTQ rights, socialization of vital services, accountability, restraints on financial markets, and a host of other challenges. 

Immigration factors mightily in the opportunities available to working millennials. With Brexit, the younger generations could lose the right to live and work in nearly 30 countries. They also would bear the burden of inheriting a debt they can’t reconcile. The reality is that by attempting to kill immigration, voters may have hobbled their own futures. Instead of facilitating the exploration of meaningful employment opportunities in global markets, Brexit supporters attenuated prospective labor pools. The United States, it seems, is heading down a similar path.

On August 12, the Trump administration released an 837-page regulation that again attempts to dramatically slash, with an implied aim to ultimately eliminate, immigration to the United States. The rule targets legal immigrants as well, and would create a new set of obstacles intended to expedite the rejection of visa and green card applications. As CNN explained, the order “applies to those seeking to come to or remain in the United States via legal channels and is expected to impact roughly 383,000 people, according to the Department of Homeland Security.” For staffing professionals, the issue of immigration should be as major a topic as it’s become to politicians. The skills shortages plaguing our industry—particularly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—are more easily solved through bolstering inclusion. In reality, immigration has been a constant source of economic vitality, innovation, diversity, production, and social benefit. Immigrants are taxpayers, workers, entrepreneurs, job creators, and consumers. Of course, the system needs reform and oversight. But does a blanket policy of “America only” really help us? 

Alexia Fernandez Campbell broke down the real immigration issue in her article for Vox: “At the end of January, the US economy had 7.6 million unfilled jobs, but only 6.5 million people were looking for work, according to data released Friday by the US Department of Labor. This was the 11th straight month that the number of job openings was higher than the number of job seekers. And each month, the gap has grown.”

How is that related to immigration? “The hardest-to-find workers are no longer computer engineers,” Campbell pointed out. “They are home health care aides, restaurant workers, and hotel staff. The shift is happening because more and more Americans are going to college and taking professional jobs, while working-class baby boomers are retiring en masse.” Historically, employers have leveraged immigrants to fill those positions. 

But it’s not simply lower-skilled, lower-earning immigrants that get swept up in the dragnet. Immigrants from all walks fuel America’s competitive power in the global marketplace. Think of it this way. We all use Google, whose CEO Sundar Pichai was born in India. Sergey Brin, another Google founder, came to the States by way of the former Soviet Union. What about Microsoft, whose CEO Satya Nadella also immigrated from India? Then there’s Elon Musk, who despite his fame and demeanor is not actually from around these parts. He’s South African. Imagine life without Google or Excel.

Benefits of Immigration

  • Immigrants boost productivity and economic growth. A study by the International Monetary Fund concluded that “immigration significantly increases GDP per capita in advanced economies.”
  • Immigrants are more likely to engage in entrepreneurial endeavors. Of all the companies valued at more than $1 billion in 2016, half were founded by immigrants. Among Fortune 500 companies, 40% were founded by immigrants or their children.
  • Immigrants influence innovation. As Griswold reported, “Immigrants make up 17 percent of the US workforce, while filing one-third of the patents and accounting for more than one-third of US workers with a PhD in one of the STEM subjects of science, technology, engineering, and math. One study found, ‘More than half of the high-skilled technology workers and entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are foreign born.’”
  • Over 75% of immigrants reside in the United States legally. The vast majority of immigrants actually arrive in America through absolutely legal avenues and overstay their visas. Erecting walls on southern borders will, in all likelihood, do nothing to curb this. “The most cost-effective policy for reducing illegal immigration remains the expansion of opportunities for legal entry and work,” according to the Mercatus Center.

Paving the Way to Prosperity Through Immigrant Talent

Education Equivalency

Most refugees face an uphill battle in getting their host countries to accept their domestic qualifications, and these individuals don’t often have the capital to re-qualify. They instead take unskilled jobs in order to pay the bills and put food on their tables. Foreign education equivalency programs solve this problem.

The good news is that these types of organizations operate in America. Although no single authority exist in the United States for the recognition of foreign degrees and other qualifications, the U.S. Department of Education endorses credential evaluation services—independent organizations that analyze non-U.S. qualifications and issue recommendations “as to how a particular qualification compares to a similar qualification or set of qualifications in the U.S. education system, labor market or the professions.” In fact, there are many accredited organizations already supported by the NACES.

Business and Government Outreach

Some progressive private sector enterprises have realized the advantages of courting immigrant talent. Banks such as Citigroup and BB&T have been hosting educational forums to help these job seekers receive valid work permits. American Eagle has created a program to help foreign-born workers learn English and apply for citizenship. Several cities across the United States have also adopted efforts to redevelop largely immigrant communities and partner with local government to facilitate language training and citizenship applications.


One of the most fascinating developments has arrived in the form of technology. A product called Envoy is changing the game for businesses interested in procuring skilled immigrant talent. The platform automates the visa application process “from start to finish with an intuitive questionnaire, online document uploading and simple task management.”

Envoy also delivers a centralized Communication Center, which allows business and HR users to collaborate with attorneys, internal stakeholders and workers. Because tracking and reporting are critical factors, the platform provides a Visa Organizer that displays a real-time overview of application due dates and upcoming expirations. Beyond that, it allows users to monitor the progress of cases and applications, pose questions and assign action items to team members.

Education, Employment, Diversity, Innovation

Where would we be without foreign-born workers who want to seize the opportunities this country offers and make a difference? Some of our most influential business leaders came to these shores from abroad: Google’s Sergey Brin, Yahoo’s Jerry Yang, and Microsoft’s Satya Nadella. Let’s not forget other famous immigrants who fled dire situations at home to help shape America: Albert Einstein, Levi Strauss, Joseph Pulitzer, and even Rupert Murdoch.

A substantial body of evidence illustrates that welcoming immigrants is an economic boon. Yet without a policy overhaul and serious focus on education equivalence, we could be sending skilled, committed, and talented workers away. In an era of skills shortages, unfilled jobs and an aging workforce, we need to innovate through diverse global perspectives. Embracing what foreign talent have to offer is the next step on that journey.

Continue reading

Our newsletter

Get great curated articles every week.

Combine sections from Ollie's vast component library and create beautiful, detailed pages.
No spam!

Innovative talent powering a brighter future.