A Middle Class Foreign Policy Must Address Universities' China Dependence | Opinion

As the United States recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, the State Department is considering relaxing restrictions on student visas for Chinese nationals. Limitations were imposed last year as a result of both COVID and growing national security concerns. The Biden administration has already signaled that it will remove COVID-related restrictions this fall.

Proponents of lifting restrictions argue that doing so is necessary to sustain universities and surrounding communities dependent on financial support from Chinese nationals. But this argument obscures the profound moral and economic consequences of higher education's undue financial reliance on China, including its preference of foreign nationals in admissions decisions and its perpetuation of ballooning tuition costs. A true "foreign policy for the middle class" must address these serious concerns.

American universities have become increasingly dependent on tuition dollars from Chinese nationals, who can afford the skyrocketing costs of attendance. As universities have raised their tuition beyond affordable rates for American citizens, they have begun intentionally admitting foreign students who can pay full freight over their American counterparts—even if it means lowering standards. Today, China sends more students to American universities than any other country, accounting for more than one-third of international students in the United States.

If a prospective government employee were financially dependent on a foreign adversary, he might be denied a security clearance. Yet, the U.S. government has not confronted universities' financial dependence on China with similar urgency. At a very basic level, universities have a vested interest in opposing visa reform that addresses security concerns on campus. But beyond mere security implications, this dependence also raises profound ethical and economic questions for our country.

One of the more morally corrupt aspects of current university practice is these institutions' lowering of admissions standards for Asian foreigners while simultaneously justifying discrimination against Asian American applicants. If universities must implement quotas for students of certain ethnicities—something that, in a just world, all would recognize as constituting racism—surely they should fill those quotas with the most qualified students. In this case, those students also happen to be American citizens.

Additionally, providing preferential treatment to foreign citizens over Americans in university admissions is a particular affront to U.S. citizens who would like to send their sons and daughters to taxpayer-funded public universities. Seventy percent of the 20 universities that enroll the highest number of international students are public institutions that have an explicit mission to educate state residents. Private universities also receive substantial direct or indirect support from the federal government, making foreign admission preferences similarly problematic.

Chinese consulate in San Francisco in July
Chinese consulate in San Francisco in July 2020 PHILIP PACHECO/AFP via Getty Images

The qualified American students who do not attain these educational opportunities represent a potentially massive self-inflicted brain drain for the United States. If our nation does not develop its best talent, American prosperity, innovation and security will suffer in the long run. We can reasonably anticipate that these consequences will be more severe when foreign students from a great-power competitor are being nurtured and cultivated instead of American citizens themselves.

Chinese nationals may indeed bring an influx of wealth into college towns, but policymakers must weigh limited financial gains for small businesses, for instance, against the possibility that business owners may not be able to afford to send their children to local public universities. With tuition costs ballooning as they are, a business owner may not be able to afford tuition no matter how many foreign students patronize his store in a given academic year—and that assumes his child does not lose out on an admission offer to a less qualified foreign national with a bigger pocketbook.

This troubling reality is the heart of the problem with university-wide financial dependence on China. Support from China allows higher education institutions to keep tuition high and avoid addressing the root causes of inflated costs, such as administrative bloat, which have little to do with learning. Rather than make it easier for universities to continue raising tuition and pricing out American students, the U.S. government should incentivize lowering higher education costs.

Qualified foreign students can certainly enrich educational communities. We can recognize these benefits while at the same time acknowledging that it is immoral and detrimental to the U.S. national interest to prioritize enrollment for less qualified foreign nationals in order to continue a higher education racket that enriches college administrators and harms deserving young Americans.

This issue is ripe for the Biden administration's professed commitment to a foreign policy for the middle class. We will see whether the administration has the courage to take on a major bastion of Democratic Party support.

Dr. Amanda J. Rothschild is the senior policy director of the Vandenberg Coalition and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Center. She served as a senior advisor on the State Department's Policy Planning staff and as a special assistant to the president and senior national security speechwriter at the White House.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.