Joe Biden’s election victory offers fresh hope that US business schools can rebuild their tarnished image abroad and attract international students back to American shores.
Several years of hostile rhetoric and a clampdown on immigration under the Donald Trump administration have made some prospective students feel unwelcome in the country, benefitting nations such as Canada and Australia.
American schools now have an opportunity to lure them back by rolling out the red carpet, but it will take time to reverse the reputational damage.
“Unwelcoming rhetoric and restrictive visa policies under the Trump administration have made it more difficult for international students to find experiential learning and subsequent career opportunities in the US,” says Rahul Choudaha, director of industry insights and research communications at GMAC, which runs the GMAT entrance exam.
“This negativity hurt the appeal of the US as a destination among international students and raised concerns about recovering the cost of education without any future pathways for work opportunities.”
More international students expected to choose US MBAs
In a GMAC survey before the US election, a quarter of prospective international students reported that they were more likely to consider studying in the US — if Biden was elected as president.
Biden is expected to make it easier for American companies to hire skilled workers from abroad. He has already reversed Trump’s controversial ban on entry from a number of majority Muslim countries.
“This shift would work in favor of American business schools, many of whom had a tough time attracting international students in the last few years,” says Choudaha.
“In the next four years, the Biden administration has the opportunity to restore the confidence of prospective students about the US as a welcoming destination and complement it with policies to attract and retain global talent.”
The Trump administration had a difficult and sometimes acrimonious relationship with US universities. Harvard and MIT sued to block the president’s move to remove international students from US schools if their courses were moved fully online because of coronavirus lockdowns. Separately, the Trump administration sued Yale, accusing the Ivy League institution of discriminating against applicants based on their race.
Trump had suspended H1B visas
Critically for international students, the US government under Trump also suspended issuance of the H1B visa program for highly skilled migrants during the pandemic. In 2019, more than 50 deans of US business schools penned a historic open letter to the president urging changes to his unwelcoming immigration policy, warning that it could damage America’s economic competitiveness.
Bill Boulding, dean at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina, led this group of academic leaders. “I think the political rhetoric that was unwelcoming to immigrants was damaging. Plus, the challenges of navigating the visa system became even more difficult,” says the dean.
“GMAC has several years of data that showed a decline in international student interest in the US because of a variety of factors, including uncertainty about obtaining a work visa after graduation.”
However, he is hopeful that immigration policy will be reformed under Biden to make it easier for people to study and work in the US. “Immigration reform, particularly for high-skilled talent, is essential for the US economy to thrive,” says Boulding.
The pandemic, which closed borders, has shown the immediate negative impact to the global economy, says the dean.
It is hard to know at this moment if any of the shifts in students interested in studying in countries like Canada or Australia will be permanent, he adds.
Isabelle Bajeux-Besnainou, the new dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pennsylvania, is optimistic about the future under a Biden administration. “I believe the United States has long appealed, and will continue to appeal, to overseas students,” she says.
“I am an immigrant from Paris, and I became a US citizen by choice because I truly believe that the US has proven to be a country that fosters freedom and innovation. And I am optimistic that business schools will return to welcoming a thriving population of international students to our campuses soon.”
The quality of the US educational system will be the biggest winner from the Biden presidency, according to California based admissions consultant Stacy Blackman.
She advises prospective MBA students on their applications, and says Biden’s presidency will “give an enormous sense of relief to higher education applicants both domestic and international, as well as college institutions and educators, all of whom value an inclusive and global student class”.
Is end of Covid-19 in sight?
The Biden administration will not only deliver relief from the immigration proposals, but also vital leadership through the pandemic, says Blackman.
“The pandemic was even more detrimental to internationals’ presence in higher education than the Trump policies. It is now reasonable to expect that MBA programs should return to normalcy by fall 2021 as a result of vaccine availability.”
She expects that both the immigration and pandemic relief will result in an influx of overseas talent, especially if the economy starts to improve. “The American dream will come alive again, and internationals will double down on US education,” she predicts.