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Talal Al-Johani, a high school student in Saudi Arabia, couldn't imagine going to college anywhere else but the United States. For the last two years, the 17-year-old has been collecting university applications and making connections with admission counselors in an effort to land at a leading American institution.
But after American voters elected Donald Trump as president, Al-Johani is having second thoughts.
Leery of unclear policies and a potentially hostile social environment under a Trump presidency, international students may now be reconsidering higher education in the United States — and that potential "brain drain" could take a hefty financial toll on America's education economy, international education experts say.
"I am concerned about how I'm going to be treated and how people will see me as a Muslim from Saudi," said Al-Johani, a student at Dhahran High School in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. "I feel Trump has affected people's social attitudes, especially towards someone like me.”
Last year, more than one million international students, a record number, came to America to pursue higher education — pumping $32.8 billion into the U.S. economy, according to the Association of International Educators (NAFSA).
The largest contingents: China, India and Saudi Arabia, made up a whopping 53 percent of all international students — not to mention billions in revenue.
"Higher education is our biggest export"
"Higher education is our biggest export"
That money is the lifeblood of many universities, said Neil Ruiz, executive director of the Center for Law, Economics, and Finance at The George Washington University Law School. “Foreign students don’t get financial aid, they pay out of pocket tuition as well as state and international fees, which is why a lot of universities have been marketing to international students," he said.
That revenue also subsidizes tuition for native-born students, who would see an increase in education costs if there was a dip in foreign counterparts, Ruiz added.
“Higher education is our biggest export,” he said.
Peggy Blumenthal, senior counsel to the president at the Institute of International Education, said there are several financial incentives in bringing international students stateside. A large majority of tuition, housing and fees goes to colleges and universities, which then use revenue to expand programs and hire teachers, she said.
But that could all be on the verge of changing.
A survey of students in more than 118 countries conducted in February by international student recruiting firms Intead and FPP EDU Media found that 60 percent said they were less likely to study in the U.S. under a Trump presidency. For some countries, like Mexico, that went up to an 80 percent less likelihood.
While this only measures inclination and not actual cases, the number speaks volumes to how important the American political climate is for international students, said Intead CEO Benjamin Waxman.
Manail Anis Ahmed, an expert on international higher education in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, said the conversations she's been having with students in her office are increasingly about what could happen under Trump.
"The Trump phenomenon has freaked people out," she said. "Students are actually asking if they might be rounded up because they are Muslim."
If even 10 percent of Saudis choose not to study in America, a projected economic loss could be close to $200 million, according to Waxman's data and the Institute of International Education. For Indian students, a 10 percent decline would near a $520 million loss.
And with Chinese students, the damage could be as steep as $1 billion.
Tonghui Shi, who graduated from China's Beijing Institute of Technology in July, said his plans to get a masters in the United States is currently on hold for at least a year. The 23-year-old wants to see how Trump does with job policies.
“I want to see if he is capable of creating more job opportunities” before going to the United States, said Shi, who is already looking into programs in Germany and the U.K. “If the general economic situation gets better in the U.S, the better for all students,” but Trump is a bit of a wild card right now, he added.
“Plus we saw a lot of black swan events happen this year, and there is some chaos in parts of the U.S.,” he said. “So I’m going to wait.”
Although Trump's sole statement on foreign students was an August 2015 tweet saying "they should not be thrown out," many of his public stances since then don't quite match up.
“There is a business case in bringing in international students — and Trump is a businessman," Ruiz said.
“But he is also conflicted because he made promises to put American workers first.”
The president-elect also proposed a Muslim registry and "extreme vetting" for people from the Middle East — a booming market for international students, he said.
It’s unclear what he will do, which is making a lot of people nervous to take a risk, Ruiz explained.
But not only are many students spooked by his rhetoric, they are also worried about the practical ramifications, such as not being able to gain the necessary visas, he said.
A similar trend happened post-9/11, when the U.S. tightened its visa vetting regulations. Between 2001 and 2003, there was a loss of almost 15,000 international students and millions of dollars, according to Institute of International Education.
Hamza Ahmed Fuzail, an Indian national working in the Middle East said his "lifelong dream" was to get an MBA in the United States and eventually settle after landing a good job.
"I’ve always wanted to study in America, but I’m not sure now," said Fuzail, who is worried immigration restrictions will be an obstacle for his ambitions. "The United States doesn’t seem like an appealing place anymore."
But Blumenthal said it's still too early to say whether a dramatic drop in international students is on the horizon without knowing Trump's visa policy.
Al-Johani, who still harbors hopes for an American education, said he's lucky because he has a full year before graduating to see how things play out in a Trump presidency. But Plan B is already in the works.
"If something goes tremendously wrong in the upcoming months," he said, "I'm already lining up schools in Europe."