Zero-Sum Thinking: Why Trump Risks Zeroing Out America’s International Education Sector

“The colleges and universities that will be hurt most deeply by the flight of international students will be those in states that voted for President Trump”

The Trump administration policies are having a notable effect on the number of international students studying in the United States. Managing Director of University Ventures Ryan Craig writes about the impact of “zero-sum thinking” and the effect it could have on American universities and colleges that depend on international students for their survival.

Ever since I read The Art of the Deal in the 1980s, I’ve not been a fan of Donald Trump. In August of 2015, writing in Forbes, I marvelled that he was leading the pack of Republican candidates for President, calling him “untrustworthy,” “fickle,” and an “entertainer playing a businessman.” Nonetheless, I never expected him to be economically illiterate as well.

Many have commented that Trump’s approach to civil liberties appears to be that freedom from discrimination for one group doesn’t result in a net gain for society because “their gain is your loss.” This “zero-sum” thinking is equally clear in his approach to immigration. In Trump’s view – at least as played to his steadfast base – every immigrant is taking a job that would otherwise go to a native-born American.

Likewise, Trump doesn’t believe that trade increases overall wealth. Rather, it’s a zero-sum game, and if we’re on the wrong end of a trade balance, we’re being taken for suckers. What’s worse is that Trump doesn’t appear to value all trade equally.

“In a recent well-reported dust-up with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Trump insisted that the U.S. has a trade deficit with Canada. It turns out the deficit is in goods only”

When services are added to the equation, America enjoys a healthy trade surplus with its northern neighbour. Despite being corrected, both Trump and his spokesperson have continued to trumpet this supposed trade deficit. As Neil Irwin noted in the New York Times, Trump has repeatedly confused trade in goods with all trade, notably by repeatedly referring to the country’s “$800 billion” trade deficit with the rest of the world ($800 billion in goods only, and doesn’t reflect America’s trade surplus in services.)

While 84% of Americans work in the service sector, few service workers should be as nervous about Trump’s potential impact on their livelihoods as the 4 million who work at colleges and universities. Not because Trump’s very first words as president about the sector were “crippling debt,”  but because he appears to have no compunction about destroying America’s $40 billion international education sector.

Here’s how Trump’s zero-sum thinking appears to apply to the 1.08 million students studying at U.S colleges and universities each year:

  • International students may well be responsible for nearly 400,000 American jobs, but these jobs are second-class jobs because they’re not producing goods.
  • At the same time:
    • Application of zero-sum immigration thinking: international students stay and take American jobs;
    • Application of zero-sum trade thinking: international students steal American intellectual property.

Ergo, America’s international education sector is not only not worth expanding, it’s not worth preserving.

If Trump values our international education sector, why has there been not only no coherent international education strategy from his administration, but also complete silence in the year following its attempted travel ban and the first decline (7%) in international student enrollment in over a decade. Meanwhile, Canada has just announced its second consecutive year of 20%+ gains.

“While Brexit is probably the second best thing that’s ever happened to Canada’s international sector, President Trump is clearly at the top of the list”

What scares me is not what we’ve seen so far, but what’s to come. Up until the past week, nothing the Trump Administration has done has targeted China, India, or Southeast Asia, the source countries of over 70% of our international students.

At the time of the travel ban, some commentators even argued America – in attempting to restrict travel from countries that Chinese students and families view as unsafe – could become more attractive to Chinese students. Now that zero-sum thinking is being turned on China in the form of tariffs, I’m watching Chinese student flows very closely.

“It seems implausible that hundreds of thousands of Chinese students won’t change their vector of study in the coming years”

This is sad for several reasons. The first is that, for those of us who believe that internationalising higher education is a good thing for America and for the world, America will fall further behind Australia, Canada, and the UK, and risk a further turn inward. The second is that Trump’s zero-sum thinking will cost America tens of thousands of good jobs in sectors like food service, facilities management, healthcare, and insurance.

“In addition to being sad, it’s also ironic, because the colleges and universities that will be hurt most deeply by the flight of international students will be those in states that voted for President Trump”

Selective schools that admit fewer than 50% of applicants enrol more than their share of international students. These institutions are predominantly located in coastal, deep blue states – nearly 75% of them, by my count. Schools like NYU, USC, Northeastern, Columbia, and University of Illinois are not likely to see a material drop in Chinese enrollment.

I’m much more worried about University of Tulsa (24% international students), Andrews University in Michigan (17%), or Lindenwood University in Missouri (12%). These colleges have come to depend on international students and their staff and faculty are likely to find themselves on the wrong end of Trump’s zero-sum game.