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The IE Interview

The Biden Administration and International Education: “Strong Steps in the Right Direction”

A conversation with NAFSA’s deputy executive director of public policy about what the international education community might expect from the Biden presidency—and where to look for signs of hope.
Illustration: Shutterstock
 

Following a challenging 4 years for international education in the United States and a contentious election season, many professionals in the field were relieved when Joe Biden was sworn in as president. In Biden's first few weeks in office, there has been a steady stream of executive orders and other actions from the White House. What do they mean for international education? And what else does NAFSA hope to see from the Biden administration and Congress?

To put the news in context, International Educator spoke with Jill Allen Murray, MPA, NAFSA’s deputy executive director of public policy, about her team’s to-do list for the new administration and signs of hope less than a month into Biden’s presidency. 

Listen to this interview on the February episode of the International Educator podcast.

 

To start off, could you give us a brief overview of what your role is at NAFSA and what your team does?

In the public policy department, we actually partner very closely with our regulatory practice colleagues. They’re responsible for the liaison work with the government officials in the administration, that specific liaison work. In the public policy department, an important piece of that is that we partner closely on the details of specific policy recommendations or policy challenges that we’re experiencing, but our work in the public policy department in and of itself is in four big buckets that I would call engagement with different communities.

And first and foremost is the obvious one: engagement with government relations or government experts. So those are the individuals who are in Congress and in the administration. They have jobs either working for someone in the House of Representatives or the Senate or any number of agencies that we would engage with. So developing those relationships is key to our work, and perhaps that’s obvious, but we spend a lot of time doing that relationship development.

We also spend a lot of time engaging with our advocates and encouraging those advocates to do very similar work, to create relationships with individuals, primarily in Congress, who are representing them in their specific geographic area. And we also work with our coalition partners. So perhaps you may be aware of some in the higher education association world, but we also work really closely with folks who are in the immigration reform community and also business coalitions, specific business partners. Then finally, we work with the media, traditional media and through social media, to get our message out there.

When we’re really doing our best work, all of these different ways that we engage with different actors in the space overlay. ... And then it hopefully comes back around and allows us to influence the policy that is determined in the long run.

And a lot of times when we’re really doing our best work, all of these different ways that we engage with different actors in the space overlay. We hope to have a number of different opportunities to elevate our work. And then it hopefully comes back around and allows us to influence the policy that is determined in the long run. Foundational to all that work is solid policy expertise, and then the ability to create persuasive materials and really quality data that help us make the case.

There has been a lot in the news about executive orders and other actions taken since Biden was sworn in as president. Could you give us a broad overview of what has happened so far and how those actions affect international education? What are the implications for the field?

We certainly feel very hopeful at this moment in time. I think the past 4 years of the previous administration [were] very challenging, and what we see coming from the Biden-Harris administration are very strong steps in the right direction. And we are very, very hopeful. Biden has nominated strong, qualified individuals [in Alejandro] Mayorkas and [Antony] Blinken—Mayorkas at DHS [Department of Homeland Security], Blinken at the State Department. We know that those individuals will welcome immigrants to this country and help to change the perception of this country—and have others view it as a welcoming destination for immigrants broadly, and for international students and scholars more specifically.

We know that the posture of Blinken is one of engagement with the world. And as it relates to study abroad, we are excited about the opportunity to see his posture change in terms of wanting to reengage with the world. He attended high school in Paris, and he also happens to be married to an individual who led the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs previously. And he actually commented on that during his hearing before the Senate and said he gained a deeper appreciation of how people-to-people exchanges bring our world closer together. That’s really a hopeful indication that [Blinken and Mayorkas] are going to be positive actors for our country on international education.

We have seen Biden immediately sign executive orders to reverse both the travel bans and to reinvigorate DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals]. Those are very, very important signatures, or swipes of the pen, if you will. We know he plans to increase the refugee cap up to 125,000 from a historic low of 15,000. That’s a really strong indicator, again, of engagement with the world and a welcoming posture to immigrants, and to refugees specifically.

[Biden] also did something that we really didn’t expect him to do in the first week he was in office: He released a bold plan to seek comprehensive immigration reform through a partnership with the legislature. We knew that he wants to see immigration reform, but I would say many of us didn’t expect to see it quite that quickly—for him to announce a specific plan.

He also did something that we really didn’t expect him to do in the first week he was in office: He released a bold plan to seek comprehensive immigration reform through a partnership with the legislature. We knew that he wants to see immigration reform, but I would say many of us didn’t expect to see it quite that quickly—for him to announce a specific plan. And he is partnering with New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez (D) to introduce this proposal. We haven’t seen the specific language yet, but we have heard that there will be a provision in that that would provide a path to green cards for international students who have graduated from a STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] doctoral program in the United States. So we see a lot of promise in that provision, and we’re enthusiastic.

We also are encouraged that [Biden] continues to promote and talk about additional economic stimulus packages—and one specifically he’s pushing right now that would include $170 billion for education [and] within that, $35 billion for higher education. And that in turn will benefit international education offices and programs.

Let’s hear more about what NAFSA wants to see from the Biden administration and from this Congress. What do you hope to see from the administration regarding international students and scholars?

I’m probably going to give you a long-winded answer here because we have a lot of ideas in this category. I’ll answer this in sort of two parts. First is really the posture of the administration and longer-term results that we’d like to see.

In terms of what we’d like to see, we point to data. As you are aware, every year we create an economic analysis of international students and their families and what they contribute to the United States. Our last analysis, which was for the 2019–20 school year, indicated that international students and their families contributed $38.7 billion [to the U.S. economy] and supported nearly 416,000 jobs. This is fantastic and quite a contribution. But disturbingly, this is the first year since NAFSA has done the calculation that we have seen a decline in the contribution. In dollars, that [contribution] declined 4.4 percent, and in jobs it was 9.2 percent. This was a loss of $1.8 billion. I’m getting really into the nitty gritty, but what I want to say here is that we would love to see a reversal of these numbers.

One of the big opportunities for the incoming Biden-Harris administration is to change policy so that we see a shift in the enrollment numbers. And then we [will] see a connected shift in the dollars and jobs contributions to the United States.

Each year, we do this analysis based on the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report. They do an annual snapshot enrollment survey, and that indicated a decline of new international student enrollment. [It] fell 43 percent. More specifically, when we drill down and look at those who were physically on campus this past fall, that number declined 72 percent, which we’re concerned about because we know that a part of [the U.S.] higher education is actually the experience of being in the United States....[W]e want to see a reversal in these numbers. One of the big opportunities for the incoming Biden-Harris administration is to change policy so that we see a shift in the enrollment numbers. And then we [will] see a connected shift in the dollars and jobs contributions to the United States.

I also will add in the big picture conversation that we were really excited to see Samantha Power, who is now going to be part of the Biden administration, lay out in a specific and detailed manner in a Foreign Affairs article her argument for why the Biden-Harris administration should take action in three specific areas. She created a sort of “three-legged stool” argument for how the United States can indicate to the rest of the world that we are again ready to lead and to engage with the world. And one of the pillars of that three-legged stool argument was to indicate that we are welcoming to international students and scholars. She actually said that she thought that the president should start by delivering a major speech announcing that his administration is joining with U.S. universities in, again, welcoming international students, making clear that they are assets rather than threats. To answer this in a big picture manner, I think that’s a wonderful idea. I would love to see this administration really engage with the world and talk about the value of international students and scholars. One of the ways that we also specifically want to see [this is to] support Optional Practical Training in this country.

I would love to see this administration really engage with the world and talk about the value of international students and scholars. One of the ways that we also specifically want to see [this is to] support Optional Practical Training in this country.

I probably could now get a little bit more specific about the policy recommendations that we would like to see from this administration. On our website, we actually have created a document available at nafsa.org/policy. It’s titled “Rebuilding and Restoring International Education Leadership.” We have specific recommendations for the administration. We would support a coordinated national recruitment strategy for international students. We would like to see an effort to secure a path to permanent residency and extend dual intent for international students. Of course, we would like to see a focus on eliminating processing backlogs as well.

Speaking of the United States engaging with the world—on the study abroad side of things, what do NAFSA and the international education community hope to see from this administration?

This should be no surprise, but we’re quite hopeful that the new administration’s focus on controlling the pandemic and a faster adoption of the vaccine will allow for safe travel to return. That in turn will bring back the possibility for international education to again thrive and to see study abroad be able to ramp back up in a way that we saw before COVID-19. If you look in the recommendations document on our website, you’ll also see really specific recommendations with regard to study abroad. We would like to see a focus on supporting study abroad at this moment in time, and that could include three specific buckets.

We’re quite hopeful that the new administration’s focus on controlling the pandemic and a faster adoption of the vaccine will allow for safe travel to return. That in turn will bring back the possibility for international education to again thrive and to see study abroad be able to ramp back up in a way that we saw before COVID-19.

We’d like to see funding for virtual programs—some may be aware that this already exists at the State Department for the Stevens Initiative. It also exists in the IDEAS [Increase and Diversify Education Abroad for U.S. Students] program, which is formerly called the Capacity Building Grants—that’s also at the State Department. We would like to see a Simon-like program [Editor's note: The Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act] at the Department of Education. This is the only thing that doesn’t already exist. The first two that I mentioned are already there and could be scaled up and could receive additional funding right away. 

In terms of a Simon-like program, [in the] longer term we would love to see the Paul Simon Study Abroad Program Act authorized and enacted by Congress. That bill has been introduced by Senators [Dick] Durbin (D-Ill.) and [Roger] Wicker (R-Miss.) and Representatives [Cheri] Bustos (D-Ill.) and [John] Katko (R-N.Y.) in previous Congresses. That’s a bipartisan and bicameral team of sponsors. What it would do is create a new, robust program that would encourage institutions to improve access to study abroad and to encourage students to study in atypical locations.

It sounds like we have quite a to-do list for the Biden administration. Realistically, what are the prospects for seeing meaningful action from the White House on some of these issues?

As I said, we’re quite hopeful. It will take work. It will take us engaging with the administration. It will take our advocates being a part of the conversation. We cannot simply assume that because we’re hopeful, and that this is a different administration than the one that we saw for the past 4 years, that our hopes and dreams will simply come into fruition. We are going to have to do the hard work of making sure that the administration knows what our priorities are and that they see a strong argument for prioritizing them. It’s really going to take engagement with our advocates to do that.

We cannot simply assume that because we’re hopeful, and that this is a different administration than the one that we saw for the past 4 years, that our hopes and dreams will simply come into fruition.

The Biden team has often said that this pandemic is number one on their list. If there’s a change in policy at the administration level or within Congress, we’re all going to have to work to make them see the point to pushing forward a policy priority.

Speaking of Congress, what can we expect from them on these issues? Do you think there is a better chance of progress given the current makeup of Congress?

We have a Senate and a House that are more narrow in terms of their control by party. The Senate is actually a 50-50 split, which means that close votes will be decided by the sitting vice president. Some of that will mean that it will be hard to enact legislation in this environment. Biden’s been very proud of his history as a senator and his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion. And he’s campaigned on that. We’ll see if it is possible for him to move forward [on] policy with Congress as a partner in the future. I actually would point our readers to the next round of COVID relief and to keep an eye on that to see if it passes in a bipartisan fashion or if it’s only passed with Democrats supporting it. That may dictate the tone of whether or not we’re able to see major legislation move forward after that—and that might include immigration reform, for instance.

As I mentioned before, Biden has partnered with Senator Menendez to introduce his proposal. That will be something we’d like to see move forward, and we want to see it move forward because things can be erased with the stroke of a pen with the next administration. It’s really important that Congress take up immigration reform for many reasons, but from our perspective for international students and scholars to see a change in the system that makes it not just a more efficient and usable system for individuals who want to come to this country and to study, but to make it so that international students and scholars can be proactively enticed to come to study and to teach here. We want that. We want to see talented individuals come to the United States, and we want them to feel that we want their presence here in this country.

There is a group of dedicated NAFSA advocates who have been doing a lot of work for a lot of years to move things forward. For that group, and also members of this community who have not yet dipped their toe into advocacy, what can they do and why are their efforts so important?

First of all, we have the Connecting Our World site where individuals can sign up to be an advocate and to receive regular communication from us and updates as to what’s going on in the advocacy space for our field. But it also provides individuals an opportunity to weigh in with their elected officials, in particular, at key moments in time. And it’ll give you an easy way to do that, to send them messages, but it also will give you an opportunity to learn more about what we’re doing and to raise their hand and let us know, “I’d like to do more. I’d like to do a meeting with my member of Congress.”

Now is a key moment for those types of opportunities because we have our Advocacy Day 2021 coming up in April. It will be an all-virtual opportunity. So you can participate in that from the comfort of your own home or your office. And it will still give you an opportunity to connect with the individuals who are in Congress and really considering the opinions of their constituents, then turning around and making policy changes in the future year. So, pretty important.

We have an opportunity if our community really engages and talks frequently and convincingly to their own members of Congress [to communicate] that these issues should be priorities.

Back to your last question about what is the opportunity for progress with this Congress: We have an opportunity if our community really engages and talks frequently and convincingly to their own members of Congress [to communicate] that these issues should be priorities. We have a real opportunity to make that case, but without really serious engagement from our advocates, it will be very hard to convince them to do that.

As someone who used to be staff to a couple of different members of Congress, [I found it] was so meaningful to have our constituents comment and to speak to me. It made a big, big difference. I was much more likely to turn around and talk to my boss about a request if it came from a constituent, if they provided me specific district-level information; I would do that over somebody with a D.C. address any day. It made a huge difference to us. So our ability to connect with our advocates and have our community come together and to make the case to Congress will be a defining opportunity for us.  •

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.

About NAFSA

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.