Trump Administration Weighs Stronger Background Checks for Chinese Students

Education Dive

Dive Brief:

  • The Trump administration is weighing whether to impose stronger background checks on Chinese students studying in the U.S. in an effort to stem what officials say is potential for espionage, Reuters reported. University and government sources said these additional checks could include examinations of phone records and social media accounts.
  • A U.S. official told Reuters that academic officials may receive the same training on how to detect spying and other crimes that law enforcement currently provides to government workers.
  • Elite private institutions and public colleges have been lobbying against the Trump administration’s policies toward international students, which have included tighter visa restrictions.

The potential restrictions are just the latest options being considered by the Trump administration to limit access to the U.S. by Chinese students out of fears of espionage.

The administration earlier this year floated the idea of a complete ban on Chinese students, who make up one-third of international student enrollment in U.S. colleges. However, it backed away from the proposal because of its potentially disastrous economic and political effects. Instead, the administration has pared back the length of time Chinese students can stay under their visas if they are studying and researching certain topics such as aviation and robotics.

Speaking out against the new visa policy in a June op-ed for The Washington Post, New York University President Andrew Hamilton wrote that the visa rules were “too blunt an instrument” to remedy larger issues at hand and argued limiting visa stays could seriously hamper U.S. institutions’ ability to recruit top students. “Making them unwelcome would result in two outcomes,” he wrote. “The best of them will go elsewhere — Australia’s universities, or Western Europe’s — and science here will begin to ossify.”

Critics have also spoke out against — and sued over — changes to nonimmigrant visas that could make it easier to bar international students from the U.S. for years.

Under a new policy, international students may be given much less or even no time to fix status violations after they are notified about them before they face reentry bans of up to 10 years. In a lawsuit filed in October, a handful of colleges contended they are likely to suffer if “well-intentioned” international students incur status violations such as through failing to update their address or having an error in their records and end up barred from the country before they finish their studies.

Fewer students are heading to the U.S. for college amid these changes. From the 2016-17 to the 2017-18 academic years, new international student enrollment dropped by 6.6%, according to recent data from the Institute of International Education. That followed a 3% drop from 2015-16 to 2016-17.

U.S. institutions did see a 3.6% percent rise in the number of students enrolled from China from 2016-17 to 2017-18, but it was the smallest gain among this group in more than a decade.

Experts point to the Trump administration’s policies as one reason for the decline. Of roughly 700 international students who expressed less interest in studying in the U.S., more than two-thirds (68.9%) cited concerns about the administration and roughly half (54.6%) indicated worries about travel restrictions, a 2017 survey by EAB and Royall & Company found.

International students supplied $39 billion to the U.S. during the 2017-18 academic year, meaning the stakes are high for most colleges. Some institutions are seeing multimillion dollar losses from particularly large dips in international student enrollment.

Others are taking precautionary measures against declines. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, has obtained a $60 million insurance policy that will protect it in the event of a 20% or greater one-year decrease in revenue caused by a drop in the number of Chinese students.