White House edition

Inside a most-unexpected meeting on international students

Exclusive: What to Know & What It Means

Nobody had a clue.

I’d been tipped off that a group of universities and higher-education associations had been invited to the White House for a meeting on international students and post-graduate work. I knew the questions the administration was sending to participants: Do American policies cause the U.S. to lose talented foreign graduates and what’s the magnitude of the loss? What should be addressed in crafting regulation or legislation? Are protections needed for American job seekers?

But as I called around ahead of Friday’s midday meeting, none of the attendees knew what to expect. Some spitballed that it might have to do with merit-based immigration, an idea that President Trump had floated in the 2018 State of the Union but that had since gotten lost in the morass of controversies and political showdowns. Others speculated – worriedly – that administration officials were going to announce long-rumored restrictions to optional practical training, the hugely popular (with students) work program for recent international graduates.

As it turns out, the first group was right.

“Positive,” I was told after the meeting. “Constructive.” “Respectful and cordial.” “Frank and productive.” “More encouraging than I would have expected.”

After more than a dozen conversations, here’s what you should know about what happened – and what might come next.

There is a lot of interest in this issue on the administration side. The administration delegation – chaired by Chris Liddell, deputy chief of staff for policy coordination and a former executive at Microsoft and General Motors, and Stephen Miller, the president’s senior policy adviser – was large, with six White House offices and five different executive branch agencies. Higher-ed invitees included a half-dozen research universities as well as officials from major associations such as the American Council on Education, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the Institute of International Education. The business community was also represented.

One attendee told me that White House officials made the point of twice mentioning that this issue is of “concern at the highest levels of government” and of particular interest to the president. The meeting ran long, significantly beyond its originally scheduled hour.

There was none of the demonizing or nativist rhetoric that has often been the hallmark of comments by the president and administration officials about people from other countries. There also was no mention of the risk of international students stealing America’s academic secrets – a fear that had apparently prompted the White House to consider barring all Chinese students last year.

Instead, White House officials expressed concern about the fall-off in international students coming to the United States and asked how to reverse it.

Higher-ed attendees took that opportunity to make the argument that the administration ought to take the opportunity to offer clarity on OPT and to state publicly that it does not intend to restrict or rollback the work program. Rumors that OPT could be limited is putting a chill on both students and employers, they said. Administration reps seemed receptive, I was told.

White House and agency officials largely were in listening mode, asking educators and employers about their concerns and their ideas. No specific policy proposals were announced. But the tenor of their questions and the direction of the conversation made it clear that they are interested moving toward a more skills-based immigration system and away from one based on a lottery and on family ties. Making it easier for graduates of American colleges to stay in the U.S. could be one part of such a system, much like in Canada.

"They didn't say it in so many words," one participant told me, "but it was very much 'let's staple a green card to every Ph.D.'"

This isn’t a new idea – and it’s one backed by college leaders. Proposals to provide work visas to graduates, particularly in critical STEM fields, have been included in past immigration reform proposals.

There’s a lot of uncertainty about what happens next. Administration officials said Friday’s meeting was just the first step. My Twitter notifications were blowing up all weekend with shock and skepticism. How could the administation be talking about attracting international students, people asked, when many blame the “Trump effect” for scaring them away. “Apparently the administration has zero clue that their rhetoric has consequences,” one person tweeted.

And the mention of immigration hardliner Stephen Miller raised a lot of hackles:

While we don’t know what the administration will propose, I think it’s equally unclear what higher ed will get behind. Yes, educators have advocated making it easier to keep talented graduates in the U.S. But that’s always been advanced as part of an expansion of the current immigration system, an “and” policy, not an “or.” President Trump has made it clear he wants to limit the number of poor and less-educated immigrants to this country. Is that a bargain that higher education can accept?

Stay tuned. I’ll continue cover this closely. And for up-to-the-minute updates, follow me on Twitter, @karinfischer.


  • Speaking of international students and work, there are two interesting new reports out on OPT. One counters the claim that recent graduates on OPT take jobs from American workers. The other suggests that higher levels of OPT participants in an area lead to increased regional innovation. It also finds no evidence of adverse effects on average earnings, unemployment, or labor-force participation.

C Is for Competition – and China

Americans are worried about losing ground to China on cutting-edge research – and many think we already are falling behind.

Among the findings of a new public-opinion poll, conducted by Echelon Insights and Hart Research:

  • Eighty-four percent of respondents said it was important that the U.S. stay ahead of China as a world leader in science and technology research.

  • Three-quarters said it would be a big concern if the U.S. were to fall behind China in research, including 38 percent who said it would be a very big concern.

  • And nearly half of those surveyed said they perceived that America was already falling behind China.

I was curious about why the pollsters chose to devote so much real estate to questions of global competition in a survey about Americans’ support for federal funding of science, so I reached out. The answer: In initial focus groups with voters and business leaders and in interviews with CEOs, China was found to be a “strong motivator” on the issue across audiences.

In other words, expect the spectre of China to be raised in future congressional fights over science spending.

Thanks for reading. Know a fellow international education geek? Tell ’em about latitude(s)!

Around the Globe

The National Institutes of Health has sent letters to universities asking them for information about researchers with NIH funding who are believed to have links to foreign governments. The goal is to protect intellectual property, but some administrators worry that the move could chill international scientific exchange.

First he resigned amid allegations he exploited graduate students from India. Now a professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City is accused of stealing a student’s research and selling it to a pharmaceutical company for millions.

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on Dreamers, young people brought to the U.S. as children. Several undocumented college students, who have been in legal limbo since President Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program in September 2017, testified:

Chinese hackers targeted more than two dozen universities in an attempt to steal military research, according to a cybersecurity intelligence firm.

A Chinese perspective on the “China spy” contretemps: A prominent Chinese professor warns that the country’s efforts to lure top native-born scholars back home may be fueling suspicions that China is trying to poach foreign know-how.

Nevada’s public colleges struck a partnership with the Mexican state of Tamaulipa. They plan to collaborate on dual degree programs, faculty and student exchanges, and language study.

Last week I mused about why American colleges ignore global higher education rankings. One hypothesis, from the dean of global studies at Oklahoma State University:

If you have global higher ed news, send it my way. Drop it in the comments, tweet at me, or email me at latitudesnews@gmail.com.

And finally…

When it comes to inbound and outbound student mobility, the United States has an enormous gender gap.

In honor of International Women’s Day, analysts at INTO University Partnerships compared the percentage of Americans who study abroad who are female…

...to the share of international students on U.S. campuses who are women.

This is something I well know but even so, seeing it represented graphically still brought me up short. America’s gender delta is outsized because of small share of men who go abroad, a stubborn challenge for US. colleges. Worldwide, about half of all students who study in another country are female.

’Til next week – Karin

For the best international education news and analysis, please subscribe to latitude(s). In this startup phase, I’ll be making the newsletter free; in the future, I’ll ask for a small fee to support quality journalism.