After facing three weeks of withering criticism about new visa restrictions, the Trump Administration took the opportunity this week to further damage the U.S. economy. This time, the damage may be far more immediate and widespread, affecting hundreds of American cities, more than a million foreign college students and millions of U.S. workers.
With every American college and university considering fully online courses this fall, the Trump Administration announced it would revoke the visa of any foreign student enrolled in a school that will be doing online-only classes. As best I can tell, well over 90 percent of U.S. college students will take one or more online courses this fall. Nearly every American university will be a hybrid of online and in-person classes.
Should the disease spread, as it is now doing across much of the nation, many schools will drop in-person classes. This puts more than a million foreign college students and their families at risk of deportation. Here’s what that would do to the American economy.
Foreign college students are one of our largest export sectors. If this rule is actually enforced, even for a quarter of students, it would be the single worst loss of American exports since World War II. This policy will mean that, by Election Day, Mr. Trump will have worsened America’s trade deficit more than any president in history.
The impact on the overall U.S. economy will be measurable, but with the economy already teetering on depression, a few million more lost jobs will hardly be noticed. Where the pain of this decision will be most acutely felt is in college towns and in America’s colleges and universities. Indiana is among the most at-risk states because we rank 10th nationally in foreign student enrollment.
This August, Indiana should have nearly 30,000 foreign students enrolling in our schools, spending more than a billion dollars in those communities. Part of our reliance on foreign students is due to the much-needed cash they bring our universities. Part is our state’s excellent reputation internationally. Purdue is a global university, with a quarter of the student body from overseas. But, the reach is everywhere. In just the last decade, the modest research center where I work has employed students from every continent except Antarctica. I’ve even had Nobel Laureates write letters of recommendation for prospective students. This reflects the excellence of Indiana’s universities.
Indiana’s universities are global entities, which now face losing a significant share of their student enrollment if they choose to spend a semester online to reduce the spread of COVID-19. And, make no mistake, even if the rule is softened, or doesn’t actually get implemented, the fear alone will do lasting damage. Foreign student enrollment is sure to collapse this fall, and we should expect significant fallout.
The loss of a billion dollars across five or six Indiana cities is a cruel blow to local economies already reeling from COVID-19. This will plunge West Lafayette, Bloomington, South Bend, Muncie and Terre Haute into depression-level decline for two to five years. The impact is not just on spending and tuition, but also on many other university activities. This will slash college bond ratings, making any new construction financially almost impossible.
The badness of this policy is even more apparent when evaluating why this is pursued. Ken Cuccinelli, the “temporary” director of citizenship services, plainly said that this policy is intended to force colleges and universities to re-open this fall in the face of COVID-19. Put more plainly, Mr. Trump is willing to do long-term damage to the American economy and risk more disease spread to force colleges and universities to open this fall. This is an amoral attempt to divert attention from his own clownish response to this pandemic.
Now, there may be readers who want universities to re-open this fall. I certainly do. But, do not confuse the desire for universities to re-open with a conservative or courageous temperament. It is neither.
If they value anything, conservatives respect the separation of power. Presidents do not have say in the opening of state or private universities. That at least is what conservatives before 2017 believed. I believe it still. A presidential effort to force opening decisions on universities and other local activities, like schools, is counter to every element of principled conservatism refined over the past two centuries. But, hypocrisy is not the worst character flaw revealed by this policy.
What I learned as a young man, and as an infantry officer in peace and war, is that courage is not defined as asking others to endure risks without benefit. Likewise, courage demands an equal share of risk. If you are unwilling to live in a college dorm this fall, asking others to do so to help save your flagging electoral prospects is not courage. It is raw cowardice.
Many might be inclined to care little about the fate of universities and foreign students. But, be assured those most harmed by this policy will not be liberal, tenured professors. This policy is aimed directly at middle-class jobs in college towns.
Viewed across the vast spectrum of Mr. Trump’s presidency, this would seem like a modest tantrum, limited in scope and effect. But, this policy runs counter to the most fundamental philosophies of American conservatism. It is deeply hypocritical for conservatives to remain silent. I will not.
This policy is also cowardly, asking others to risk their health or education for short-term electoral sake. Mr. Cuccinelli and Mr. Trump would do well to note that courage is the first of all personal virtues, from which all others spring forth. This policy does have one deeply relevant value. As it is deeply hypocritical, serving only the cowardly aspirations of electoral success, it is perfectly representative of the Trump Presidency.
Michael J. Hicks, PhD, is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball distinguished professor of economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University. Hicks earned doctoral and master’s degrees in economics from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Virginia Military Institute. He has authored two books and more than 60 scholarly works focusing on state and local public policy, including tax and expenditure policy and the impact of Wal-Mart on local economies.