On Monday, the Supreme Court allowed the government to enforce a travel ban that would prevent people from six predominantly Muslim counties from entering the U.S. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the Court’s order explicitly states that students from the designated countries who have been admitted to U.S. colleges will be allowed to enroll or continue their studies.
As someone who was engaged in international education exchange during much of my tenure as a dean, this exception is the silver lining. When students, especially young undergraduates, come to study in the U.S., they have a series of relationships that shape their vision of America and Americans and often challenge pre-conceived negative views.
The American college campus is one of the few places on earth where people from so many diverse backgrounds come together for a common purpose. In the 1950s, Dr. Gordon Allport proposed the “Contact Hypothesis” — a theory claiming that contact between groups promotes tolerance and acceptance when there is equal status and common goals.
A more recent study by UC Santa Cruz psychologist Thomas Pettigrew finds that contact not only shapes what we think about others, but it can actually influence how we feel about them. Professor Pettigrew concludes, “Your stereotypes about the other group don’t necessarily change, but you grow to like them anyway.”
The Institute of International Education reports that 1.2 million international students attended American colleges and universities in 2016, an increase of 6.5 percent from the year before and the highest number ever. However, the steady growth in international student enrollments may be coming to an end.
A May report from The American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) indicates that applications from international students have slowed, with 39 percent of responding universities reporting declines in the number of undergraduate applications for fall 2017.
The strong dollar and increasing post-secondary opportunities abroad are contributing factors; however, AACRAO’s Executive Director Michael Reilly says there may be fewer applicants because some prospective international students see America “becoming less welcoming.” Mr. Reilly adds that some parents also worry about their children’s safety as concerns increased following the February shooting of two Indian engineers at a Kansas bar by a man reportedly shouting, “Get out of my country.” The murderer told police he thought they were Iranians.
More than 30 years ago, Duke and Harvard Professors Crauford Goodwin and Michael Nacht observed that international students enrich the classroom and contribute to the educational process of which they are an integral part. Additionally, international graduates return to their native countries to share their positive experiences and often become ambassadors and advocates for American values — building and strengthening bridges between their nations and ours.
Beyond these “humanist presumptions,” international students are a significant source of revenue. NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimates that international students added more than $32.8 billion to the economy and supported more than 400,000 jobs during the 2015-2016 academic year. According to the latest financial statistics, the total revenue from international students studying in California accounts for $4 billion and continues to rise.
In the 1980s, Harvard Professor Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power,” which is the ability of a country to persuade other nations to do what it wants without force or coercion. Nye argued that the U.S. has excelled in projecting soft power and universities and other institutions of civil society have been especially important to America’s ability to attract partners and supporters around the world.
The Republican strategist Frank Luntz observes it’s not what you say but what people hear that matters. Luntz writes, “You can have the best message in the world, but the person listening will always understand it through the prism of her or his own emotions, preconceptions, and pre-existing beliefs.”
How do actions such as the Supreme Court’s decision affect America’s standing in the world? A recent Pew Foundation report finds favorable ratings of the United States plummeting among citizens of the nation’s closest allies and others worldwide.
Frank G. Wisner, a former diplomat in Republican and Democratic administrations, says America is perceived to be abandoning principles it has long espoused — in fact, those that have defined its democracy. Wisner adds that global popular opinion matters in part because it determines how and whether foreign leaders engage with and support American interests.
Princeton Professor John Ikenberry notes, “America’s national security has always hinged as much on winning hearts and minds as it does on winning wars.”
Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He is currently a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: email@example.com.