Will the U.S. Lose its Sheen for International Students?

As the Trump administration pushes policies that make it more difficult for international students to study in the U.S., Asian students are disproportionately affected.

Columbia University (Small)
Columbia University

Kavitha Cardoza


August 11, 2020

Devana Senanayake, who is from Sri Lanka, did her undergraduate degree in Australia in 2016. After she did a workshop in New York last year, she thought about coming to the U.S. for a graduate degree. “American education is so creative. I’ve never experienced anything like that before,” she said. But when she began researching more, she changed her mind. She found the immigration system too unstable. She heard scary stories from friends in America about racism and gun violence. And she couldn’t get over the fact that the U.S. didn’t have universal healthcare. “We have universal healthcare here in Sri Lanka. I just don’t understand why you need to pay for insurance for basic medical services. It’s ridiculous.” Senanayake, 26, didn’t want to move to another country and pay a lot of money in tuition, only to be treated like a “second-class citizen.”

The number of students enrolling for the first time at a U.S. institution has declined since 2017 — the number of international undergraduate students declined by 2.4% and that of international graduate students declined by 1.3% — due to factors such as visa delays, tuition costs, and fears of gun violence. President Donald Trump has sought to restrict immigration in several ways, as part of his campaign promises. But the proposals that affect international students play an additional role — they also put pressure on universities to reopen campuses for in-person classes, something the president has been pushing for, arguing it will jump-start the economy. Both the economy and the coronavirus pandemic are seen as crucial issues in the upcoming presidential elections. In July, the administration confirmed that it would ban new international students who take online-only classes from entering the United States after more than 200 universities — led by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — challenged a broader proposal in court.

The United States has historically been the top destination for international students — China (33.7% of international students in the U.S.) and India (18.4%) are the top two countries of origin, accounting for more than half of the international student population in the U.S. Other South Asian countries rank high as well, including Nepal (12th), Bangladesh (20th), and Pakistan (22nd). As COVID-19 and increasingly restrictive immigration policies make it more difficult for international students to study in the United States, Asian students could be disproportionately affected.

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