International students get backing of top U.S. leaders despite travel restrictions

The White House is also considering mandating COVID-19 vaccines for international visitors
By: | July 26, 2021
Growth in the enrollment of international students at U.S. colleges and universities has slowed significantly. Some blame the political climate, uncertainty over visa applications and increased competition from colleges in other countries.

Leaders from the Departments of State and Education issued a joint statement on Monday offering renewed support for international education, saying bluntly that “the United States cannot afford to be absent from the world stage.”

The unusual nature of the combined release highlighted the commitment from the Biden Administration to meet the needs of international students and emphasized their importance to the U.S. economy. Those populations not only boost enrollment at higher education institutions but also contribute more than $39 billion and support more than 400,000 jobs, according to data from nonprofit NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

However, the Biden Administration decided last week not to lift COVID travel restrictions that bar travelers from many countries from entering the U.S., according to Reuters.

The White House is also considering mandating COVID-19 vaccines for international visitors, Reuters also reported.

Although the U.S. welcomes the most international students in the world each year, competition is growing from other countries, including those that have divergent and sometimes polarizing ideals, according to the two agencies. International students can help lead the way on innovation and research, bolstering national security by “creating goodwill and mutual understanding.”

“The U.S. higher education system has had to demonstrate remarkable flexibility and resourcefulness in addressing the unique challenges of the pandemic,” officials wrote. “As the health crisis recedes, we need to restore and further strengthen the capacity of our institutions.”

Government backing has been necessary in times of crisis—highlighting the federal initiatives such as Fulbright programs after World War II and the creation of the Peace Corps, the agencies noted.

This moment qualifies because a perfect storm of COVID-19, cybersecurity threats, climate change and racial justice issues worldwide threaten to affect international exchange.

“We are at another critical juncture,” they said. “It is vital to reinforce our people-to-people relationships around the globe and to strengthen the infrastructure and pathways that help prepare Americans to engage with the world and navigate the ever-changing landscapes of education, international business, scientific discovery and innovation.”

The agencies promised to assist by:

  • Helping coordinate a national approach to international education that includes the internationalization of U.S. campuses and classrooms.
  • Further supporting international education through partnerships with institutions, schools, state and local governments and other stakeholders.
  • Promoting equal access to benefits of any international program, while encouraging diversity of students and institutions. That includes bringing more researchers, scholars, and educators to the U.S.
  • Backing U.S. students who wish to study or pursue academic endeavors abroad.
  • Creating avenues for students to access technology when face-to-face learning is not possible.
  • Promoting cooperation among the federal government, the private sector and institutions to prevent research endeavors from foreign influence and unlawful acquisition.

These commitments show a deep contrast to the restrictions imposed by the President Trump administration on travel, learning and work permits for international students. Consequently, enrollment declines deepened, opening the door for students to pursue opportunities for study in other countries.