The IE Interview

Edward Alden on the Intersection of Economics, Foreign Policy, and International Education

A conversation with the author, journalist, and professor on how economics and foreign policy are intertwined with international education.

Edward Alden, MA, is an author, journalist, and professor, as well as the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Specializing in U.S. economic competitiveness, trade, and immigration policy, Alden is the author of Failure to Adjust: How Americans Got Left Behind in the Global Economy.

Given his range of expertise and current position as the Ross distinguished visiting professor at Western Washington University, Alden sees how economics and foreign policy intersect with higher education. International Educator spoke with Alden about the long-standing bipartisan support for international students in the United States, the country’s eroding competitive edge compared with other top destination countries, U.S.-China relations and the implications for international education, and more. 

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. Listen to an audio version of this story on the International Educator podcast below.


Historically, how have both political parties supported or opposed international students coming to the United States? How has it become more of a partisan issue lately?

This is not a brand-new debate. There’s no question that it has become more divisive in the past few years, and this is the first time we’ve had an administration that really seems to believe foreign students by and large are not a great thing for the United States. 

Headshot of Edward Alden
Edward Alden, MA

There has been general support for the concept that foreign students are a good thing for the United States. But if you go back to [September 11, 2001] and its aftermath, which I wrote about in my book, and even before that, going back to the 1990s—there was an unsuccessful attack on the World Trade Center, in which a foreign student played a role—there has been concern over foreign students that goes back some time, [while also] recognizing the enormous economic and cultural contributions [they make].

Some worry that a small handful of foreign students could be a security threat. And after 9/11...there was serious consideration of temporarily blocking all student visas. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic senator from California, was pushing right after 9/11 for a six-month moratorium on all foreign students coming into the United States. There was, for a period of several years after that, a growing level of suspicion surrounding foreign students, particularly those from Muslim countries, but not exclusively. 

The difference between then and now was that the Bush administration generally believed foreign students were a good thing. They were worried about the security issues and tried to work that through. The blip in terms of foreign student enrollment turned out to be a fairly small one. You saw a bit of a decline after 9/11, but it recovered very quickly. What we’re seeing now I think has the potential to do much more serious damage to the United States as the world’s most attractive location for foreign students.

In international student recruitment, the United States has been losing its competitive edge to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and others. Can you tell us more about the short- and long-term effects of losing that edge? 

It’s slightly hard to talk about short term and long term right now, just because of the unprecedented impact of the COVID crisis. Foreign student enrollments are down in Canada, they’re down in Australia, down in the UK, and the pandemic has restricted travel generally. 

But what we’ve seen in the United States during this administration is a pretty clear message being sent out to foreign students that they’re not particularly wanted here and their lives are going to be made difficult by this administration. And that’s very different than the message that the Australians are sending out or the Canadians or even the British to a considerable extent. I think there’s no question that has had an effect on new enrollments. You see the comparative success of Australia and Canada versus the United States. There are other issues that have to do with costs, which are less a question of government policy. Short term, we’ll have to see how COVID plays out. 

Longer term, this is what really concerns me. The United States has done a reasonably good job rebounding in the past when we’ve had these situations where we temporarily said to foreign students, “We’re worried about you.” The numbers have tended to rebound, maybe not quite as strongly as before, but pretty strongly. The quality of U.S. universities and their international brands remain extremely attractive to foreign students. I think the blow this time is going to be a lot deeper. I think we’ve made it very difficult for foreign students. 

In particular, look at the tensions between the United States and China. China [represents] about one-third of the foreign student population in the United States. On top of the general anti-immigrant stuff this administration has done, on top of all of the restrictions related to the pandemic, you have escalating tensions between the United States and China [and] initiatives that seem to target Chinese students quite directly. I think we’re less likely to see a recovery there than we saw in the past. We’re more likely to see a steady decline in the number of Chinese students in particular. 

When we talk about competitiveness in this context, it’s usually about keeping the country as an attractive study destination for international students. In what other ways are we competing with other countries, and how does international education play a role in that?

There are two parts to it. One is attracting them to come here and study in the United States, which has benefits for our universities financially [and] for our students in universities, in terms of exposing them to people from other cultures. It helps the research work at universities. Foreign students, particularly in the sciences and engineering, are a big part of the research workforce at universities. All of those are competitive issues in and of themselves. 

I’ve done a lot of broader research on U.S. economic competitiveness [and] how the United States stacks up against other countries. The success of our universities, the high quality of university research, is a big part of where the U.S. gains competitive advantage. 

The second piece is the transition to work. If we educate these foreign students in the United States, are they all going to go back home, or [are] some of them going to stay in the United States? There’s nothing inherently wrong with foreign students coming, learning in the United States, and going back home. The research shows that that pays benefits over time as well; [it is] certainly good for U.S. diplomacy and soft power. 

But the big benefits come when they stay here in the United States and go to work for U.S. companies or start their own companies, they file patents, they become part of our scientific and technological enterprise. The evidence on that is absolutely clear that foreign students who stay and work in the United States provide enormous benefits for the U.S. economy. Company after company in Silicon Valley [was] founded by foreign students who came here and then stayed. 

The stay rates for these students are still pretty high. If you look particularly at master’s and PhD students in the sciences, a very high percentage of them have been staying and making their careers in the United States. This is a great place to work and make a life, particularly if you’re a talented scientist or engineer. If we cut off that pipeline at the beginning, it obviously does some harm to the universities, but it also has effects down the road—people who don’t come and stay, don’t go to work for U.S. companies, and don’t become part of our corporate scientific and technological enterprise here in the United States.

You mentioned on a recent Council on Foreign Relations podcast that international students’ contributions to the United States are poorly understood. Why do you think that is? How could we increase that understanding?

Part of the challenge is [a misunderstanding of] the dynamic nature of economies. Most people want to get a job. They want to graduate from their high school or community college or university or beyond, and they want to get a job. They’re thinking about, who are my competitors for these jobs? And it’s fairly easy to tell a story. The Trump administration tells this story repeatedly, that foreign students who come to U.S. universities are our competition. They’re competing for places in the universities, they’re competing for jobs after they graduate. That’s a story that a lot of people intuitively understand. And in some cases, there’s no question that’s true, particularly some entry-level tech jobs. 

I think the harder story to tell is that the American economy, more than most, is in this constant process of creative destruction. New companies arising, old ones falling. New technologies are being created that create positions we haven’t even thought of before. Think about the explosion in demand for cybersecurity experts, or what Zoom has done to the way we work. If you have an innovative and dynamic economy, and foreign students have been a big part of our innovation and dynamism, that’s constantly going to create new and attractive opportunities for U.S. students. 

Global challenges, whether climate change, a pandemic, or economic crises, increasingly require global cooperation. From an economic standpoint, what is the role international education has to play in creating these global solutions?

I would like to be more optimistic than I am. There’s a lot of potential. I think educational exchanges are incredibly important. At Western Washington University in the economics and business department, we strongly encourage students to study abroad, and you can see at an individual level what that does. You’d like to think this is going to lead to more enlightened generations of leadership that will cooperate better on big global problems. 

At the moment, unfortunately, the world is moving in the other direction. If you look at the COVID crisis, rather than encouraging the world to come together to find solutions, we’ve retreated into our national bubbles. What are the tools here that we’ve been using? Border and travel restrictions are a big part of it. A lot of places have kept out foreign students for exactly that reason, because we’re worried about people bringing the virus from other places. 

We’ve seen this new nationalism in terms of supply chains; we don’t want to be dependent on the Chinese or the Indians or anybody else for medicines or protective equipment. We’ve seen a drive to bring that all that back home. If you look at what’s happening in vaccine development, there’s been some U.S.-UK cooperation and some others, but it’s not a global effort. It’s been very much a national effort. I fear, at the moment, the positive benefits of mixing of cultures that we’ve seen through international education are being overshadowed by the more nationalist responses to the pandemic.

Is this nationalistic response a product of governments that are currently in power in different countries, or would it be different if that wasn’t the case?

That is a great big question that I probably do not have a good answer to. I think to some extent history does move in cycles. We’ve seen this in U.S. history. The previous era of globalization, which involved movement of people and ideas and goods, topped out at the start of the first world war. We moved after the war into a period where we turned much more into ourselves as a country—it was commonly referred to as the isolationist period in U.S. history. 

And there are elements of that coming again, this time a lot of it [coming] from the United States, which was the most important architect of the post–second world war economic and political order that created a world in which foreign students could be free to study all across the world. That was a world that was built under U.S. leadership. We as a country, particularly in the last 4 years, have been moving in a different direction. 

The bigger question is, would it be possible to reverse that under different leadership? To some extent, yes, but I also think there are big forces at play. The United States-China rivalry is going to be a difficult one to manage [for] whoever the next U.S. president is. Some of the forces that are pulling us away from the globalization of the last few decades are going to stay with us, whoever is in charge.

Given the direction we’ve been moving in the last 4 years, what further actions related to international students, if any, do you anticipate if the president is reelected? If Vice President Biden is elected, do you anticipate course correcting in this area?

If President Trump is reelected, we can anticipate a whole series of further measures that will make the United States less attractive for immigrants and less attractive for foreign students. I don’t think that the Trump administration’s position is they want to go to zero. They just want to see smaller numbers. I think they continue to like to attract the best and the brightest from overseas, just not in such great numbers. 

If you send out the harsh messages that this administration has been sending out, and you take this sort of regulatory action, it’s going to be pretty hard to reverse course on that in any significant way. If Trump is reelected, I think we’re going to see a doubling down on the current approach. And I think that is going to have lasting negative impacts for the United States’s ability to attract foreign students.

A Biden administration, I think, would pursue a different sort of course, but if things do change, it’s probably going to take a while. They’re going to be coming to office in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The government budget situation is in tatters. There are going to be real challenges. Think of public universities, for example. They’re going to be facing enormous financial challenges for the next several years, at least, and probably beyond. A [Biden] administration would have a very different philosophy, very different ideology on these issues, but I think [they are] going to face a lot of practical obstacles to changing direction in any sort of a timely fashion.

You mentioned the tension in U.S.-China relations and the effect on international education and exchange. Can you tell us more about how this current dynamic and the implications?

There is a whole other thing going on here beyond just the general restrictions on foreign students, and that’s the escalating cold war between the United States and China, particularly where it regards science and technology. Even administrations that were more sympathetic to foreign students have always walked a fine line with Chinese science and engineering students.

There’s been an effort of “Yes, we want to open our universities to them. Yes, we want them to come and study. Yes, we would like them to stay.” But there’s also concern if they’re learning things in American universities that have a direct applicability to Chinese military capabilities. To what extent are we concerned about that? What are the tools that the government has to try to identify people that it needs to be worried about, to try to restrict programs of study, if necessary—that’s been on the agenda for a long time. It was a subject of discussion after 9/11, but it’s really ramped up over the last couple of years. 

We’re in the midst of a full-blown U.S.-China technology war, with the United States trying to strangle Huawei, which is China’s flagship telecommunications, equipment, [and] smartphone maker. The administration has enacted various regulations that have the potential to cut off access for a lot of Chinese students. If you have a Chinese student who studied at a university in China that’s affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army—and an awful lot of them are—many of those [students] are going to be barred from coming to do graduate work here in the United States. 

Unfortunately, the deteriorating relationship between the United States and China, and the concern in the United States, and this is across both parties, that China poses a growing security threat—I think that is going to make the situation for Chinese students here in the United States harder and harder. I think fewer are going to come, and I think there are going to be more restrictions on the ones who come. Because Chinese students are such an important part of the foreign student contingent here, I think that’s going to have a big impact, even if we have an administration that is generally a warmer and more welcoming [one] than the current one.

All those discussions have really ramped up really just in the last 4 or 5 months, but I think this is going to continue. Even with a change of administration, there will be changes in approach, but I think the United States and China have moved from a period of somewhat uneasy cooperation into a period of more direct conflict. That’s going to have a lot of implications for all sorts of things, including universities here in the United States.  •

About International Educator

International Educator is NAFSA’s flagship publication and has been published continually since 1990. As a record of the association and the field of international education, IE includes articles on a variety of topics, trends, and issues facing NAFSA members and their work. 

From in-depth features to interviews with thought leaders and columns tailored to NAFSA’s knowledge communities, IE provides must-read context and analysis to those working around the globe to advance international education and exchange.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators is the world's largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. NAFSA's 10,000 members are located at more than 3,500 institutions worldwide, in over 150 countries.