By Ellie French
Boston University Statehouse Program
This article was originally published in Boston Business Journal.
Massachusetts might have been one of the states hit hardest if the White House had followed through on a reported proposal earlier this year to stop providing student visas to Chinese nationals, higher education experts say.
The Financial Times reported Tuesday that officials in the Trump administration, led by White House aide Stephen Miller, encouraged the president to ban Chinese citizens from studying in the United States entirely. But concerns over the move’s economic and diplomatic impact tabled the discussions before they came to fruition, the newspaper reported.
Massachusetts, renowned for its many colleges and universities, currently enrolls 21,143 Chinese students, according to William Brah, assistant vice provost for research at UMass Boston.
Overall, in 2017, the state had 62,926 international students — the fourth highest enrollment in the country. These students spent an estimated $2.7 billion in the state, according to The Open Doors Report on International Education Exchange.
Northeastern University topped the charts for international students in Massachusetts with 13,201 in 2017. The school was closely followed by Boston University, Harvard University, MIT and UMass Amherst.
Richard Doherty, the president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said that ending student visas to Chinese citizens would have been a “terrible idea.”
“It’s very shortsighted for a host of reasons,” Doherty said in an interview. “I think it’s short-sighted educationally, because I think schools benefit tremendously from having the perspective of Chinese students in their classrooms. It enriches the classroom experience for all students to have that presence and perspective in the class discussions.”
Doherty added that the reported policy would have also been “a terrible idea economically” and “a huge loss for the commonwealth.”
In August, MIT president L. Rafael Reif published an op-ed in The New York Times with a similar sentiment.
“[W]e should make sure we have an immigration system that welcomes the best talent from anywhere in the world, so that people hungry for opportunity continue to see America as the best place for their education and the best place to spend their lives and careers, enabling the United States to reap the benefit of their creativity and drive,” Reif wrote.
MIT has enrolled Chinese students since 1877, according to the school’s associate provost, Richard Lester.
“Chinese students have brought so much to our campus over the past 140 years,” Lester wrote in an article posted on the MIT communications office website last month. “And our Chinese faculty and alumni, people like I.M. Pei, Sam Ting, Charles Zhang, and others, have enjoyed great entrepreneurial and academic success and made important contributions in the U.S., in China, and around the world.”
While the Trump administration talks may have been shelved months ago, Doherty said there’s reason to remain concerned. The reported discussion sends a terrible message — not only to China, but around the world — about whether the United States is an open society, he said.
“I guess I would hope that it’s not a serious proposal,” Doherty said. “My fear is that there are too many bad proposals that seem to have caught on, so I’m not ready to dismiss it as just bluster.”