American higher education at risk from immigration policies, says USC president

  • The Trump administration's perceived hostility to immigration and its potential impact on international enrollment in U.S. colleges is a particular concern for the educational establishment.
  • "There hasn't been a major impact yet, but it's something we're concerned about," USC president Max Nikias told CNBC.
  • Trump's presidency has been seen as a result of a mounting backlash against immigration, as opponents of increased international arrivals fear they could take jobs from American citizens.

University leaders are concerned about how federal government policies are affecting higher education in the U.S., one prominent university head told CNBC on Wednesday.

Max Nikias, president of the University of Southern California, discussed the education sector's fears for over-reaching regulation by the government.

"There hasn't been a major impact yet, but it's something we're concerned about, we lobby congress — we're always worried about government over-regulation in American higher education, especially as a private, independent research university, but it remains to be seen if there is going to be a major impact," he said.

The Trump administration's perceived hostility to immigration and what that might mean for international student enrollment in U.S. universities is a particular point of worry for the educational establishment.

Donald Trump's presidency has been seen in part as a result of a mounting backlash against immigration with opponents of increased international arrivals believing that they could take jobs from American citizens. USC's President Nikias rejected that perspective.

"The balance of international students — there is nothing wrong with it. Our university has been welcoming international students for last 140 years," Nikias said. "Clearly from my perspective I'd like to diversify international student enrolment." USC is opening a London office this year.

Out of the Los Angeles-based university's 38,000 students, about 23 percent are from abroad. The challenge of students being able to stay and work in the U.S. after graduation is a major issue for universities and many employers alike, who argue that the country loses valuable talent because of restrictive visa regulations.

"That's exactly the reason we lobby Congress, because we'd like the international students, especially those in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines, to be able to work in the U.S. after they get their degrees," Nikias explained. Universities are some of the most prominent lobbyists on immigration issues at a federal level.

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According to a report published last year by the Institution of International Education, new foreign enrollment in American universities was about 291,000 in 2016 — a 3 percent drop from the previous year, representing the first backtrack in growth the organization has recorded since it first started tracking those figures.

It separately received feedback from 500 schools in the fall of 2017 who reported an average 7 percent drop in new international enrollment, though the researchers said it was too soon to know whether the "Trump effect" is squarely to blame.

The need for talent

Meanwhile, industry association leaders have highlighted a growing dearth of sufficiently skilled workers in STEM fields, emphasizing to policymakers the need for more talent to fill advanced-industry jobs.

"The secret of success in America, if you look at any industry sector, is that our universities have been a magnet for the best and brightest from all over the world to come, be educated and contribute in our society," Nikias said.

In September, scores of universities voiced their opposition to Trump's announced plan to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, removing legal protection implemented under the Obama administration for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Later in the year, more than 200 university leaders signed a letter to the president urging him to protect and expand DACA. The program is currently set to begin expiring on March 5, unless Congress can agree on a plan to extend it or find an alternative solution for the roughly 800,000 people it comprises.

And more than 50 university presidents signed a letter to President Trump in early 2017 in opposition to the highly controversial ban on immigrants from several majority-Muslim countries.

Nikias, an immigrant himself who first came to the U.S. from Cyprus, cited his own experience as an example of the promise of an American higher education, though many criticize today's college tuition fees as inaccessibly high for many students compared to previous decades.

"I went to the United States many years ago as an international student. And I was able to stay and pursue the dream of a better life through higher education," he said.