As recently as 2015, Iowa City made national headlines for being the “town where bubble-tea shops outnumber Starbucks.” The media chronicled the changes — culturally challenging yet demographically and economically beneficial — from the rapid increase in the number of international students enrolling at the University of Iowa. In 2015, one in 10 Hawkeyes were from China.
Two years later, Iowa City is again making national news: The university is part of a disturbing drop in the number of foreign students coming to study in the United States.
After years of steady growth, international student arrivals have plummeted 7 percent across the country. The UI’s are down 13 percent since 2015. A recent survey finds that students are concerned about the social and political environment in the United States, feel unwelcome, and fear for their safety.
As a researcher focused on immigration in the Midwest and an alum of the UI, we are troubled by these trends. The White House’s travel bans, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and “America First” platform not only run counter to our values, they also compromise universities’ bottom lines and local economies in the process.
Nine of the top 20 U.S. universities with the largest Chinese student populations are Big Ten schools. Chinese Hawkeyes’ $70 million in out-of-state tuition supports the education of their in-state classmates and pumps $100 million into Iowa City’s economy. Students from other countries also bolster enrollment at regional schools and community colleges.
Universities and local communities have long been paying a price for our country’s outdated immigration system.
While international students have been able to study in the U.S. under F-1 visas, there are limited means to stay after graduation. The odds of securing an employer-sponsored H-1B visa are slim: In 2017, the government received 199,000 applications for 85,000 visas.
International students who put their U.S.-minted diplomas to work elsewhere make communities like Iowa City net exporters of global talent — and at great cost. A 2016 study from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that the Midwest would gain $3.2 billion in income and $123 million in state income tax by employing foreign-born students in local economies.
Now, there is the added challenge of persuading international students to come here in the first place.
A pre-election study found that 60 percent of 40,000 students surveyed in 118 countries said they would be less likely to pursue study in the U.S. if Trump were elected president. Furthermore, the U.S. is increasingly competing with other countries vying for global talent.
Students want to study where they will feel welcomed — and can work after they graduate. Canada, Ireland, and Chile actively court foreign-born entrepreneurs, students included, while the U.S. does not even offer them visas.
As the federal government seems intent on restricting immigration, universities and college towns must focus on welcoming.
Iowa City, a member of the Welcoming America network, has long been a global oasis in America’s heartland. The International Writing Program is one of the most respected writers’ programs in the world.
Students from France, Mexico, Senegal, and Sri Lanka can study more than 15 languages on campus. The Global Mosaic Living-Learning Community offers all students unique experiences and information on study-abroad programs. Most presidential candidates running for office make a stop in Iowa City, as do influential leaders from around the world.
Iowa City needs to reinforce its global appeal and invest in programs and policies that continue to attract international students, building a different narrative from the one they hear from the administration. Our universities’ and local economies’ future depend on it.
— Sara McElmurry and Juliana Kerr
Sara McElmurry is a nonresident fellow on immigration at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and coauthor of “Opportunity Lost.” Juliana Kerr is the director of global cities and immigration at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a UI alumna.