Regulate International Student Enrollment

North Carolina campuses should exclude foreign students who hate America.

In the aftermath of Hamas’s attacks on Israel on October 7, 2023, campuses across the country erupted with intense, heated protests. Except the protests weren’t against the brutality of Hamas’s massacre of innocent civilians. No, students had come to the conclusion that such actions were justified, and it was Israel’s military response to the attacks that needed to be stopped. In one of many such instances, pro-Palestinian student groups at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill used a paraglider, one of Hamas’s modes of attack, in fliers promoting the event. As UNC provost Chris Clemens said: “There is no doubt the flyer represents a celebration of violence and murder.”

International student involvement in campus radicalism is a discomfiting reality for universities.Some left-wing student groups, such as the Young Democratic Socialists of America, were present at these kinds of events. This is no surprise—pro-Palestinian activism has been a staple of left-wing student activism since the 1960s. But it was hard not to notice the foreign student component at these protests, whose joy in the brutality of Hamas could only stem from tribal resentment towards Israel and the broader West. Indeed, UNC board members expressed concern about protestors’ comments made in foreign languages, as they couldn’t discern whether such speech called for violence.

International student involvement in campus radicalism is a discomfiting reality for university administrators and higher-education associations, who have quietly pushed for ever-higher levels of international student enrollment for at least the past 70 years. International student enrollment at Duke University, for instance, has more than tripled over the past 20 years. Administrators and lobbyists love to tout the benefits international students bring to American universities—from intellectual diversity to cultural exchange, or, if they’re feeling particularly honest, lots of tuition money. While these benefits do exist for some students who come to study in the United States, the recent protests reveal that there are serious risks to enrolling massive numbers of international students. Naively accepting foreign tuition money under the guise of internationalism and tolerance can no longer be an acceptable paradigm at North Carolina universities.

An Overview of International Students in North Carolina

North Carolina universities enroll more than 23,000 international students, placing the state 14th among all states for international student enrollment. The five North Carolina universities to enroll the most international students are Duke, North Carolina State, UNC Charlotte, UNC-Chapel Hill, and Wake Forest University. Most of these universities allocate around 10 percent of seats to international undergraduate and graduate students, though Duke’s share is much higher, at 23 percent. Both Duke and North Carolina State are among the top-50 institutions nationwide that enroll the most international students.

China, India, South Korea, and Canada send the most students to study in the state. Saudi Arabia rounded out the top five countries for North Carolina in 2022, though the United Kingdom took the gulf state’s place in 2023 after a nationwide decline in Saudi enrollment. China and India together provide more than half of international students in the state, mirroring national enrollment trends.

Most international students pay their own way, and most end up paying full tuition.Most international students pay their own way, and most end up paying full tuition—particularly at the undergraduate level. This is a major motivation for universities to enroll international students. For public universities, the financial incentive is even stronger: International students pay the higher, out-of-state tuition rate. However, even this isn’t enough for some universities bent on reengineering their student bodies. Out of the top five North Carolina universities in terms of international student enrollment, three offer financial aid to international students. This is an increasingly common practice as universities attempt to rebalance enrollment numbers to obtain a more “diverse” international student population. UNC Charlotte and UNC-Chapel Hill, on the other hand, do not offer financial aid to international students.

There is yet another dimension to the financial benefits of international students: foreign sponsors. While only about three percent of international students are sponsored by foreign governments or other foreign organizations, these sponsored students disproportionately come from countries of concern. I discovered this pattern through public records requests at several large public universities across the country:

Three out of the top five countries that sponsor foreign students at Texas A&M were Middle Eastern states. And Texas A&M is no outlier—data at the University of Maryland, Louisiana State University, the University of Northern Iowa, and the University of South Carolina show a similar pattern of overrepresentation of Middle Eastern countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE). While China also appears as a top sponsor for some schools, India is notably absent, indicating that most international students from India must pay their own way.

North Carolina universities appear to be no exception, having received at least $23M in funds from Saudi Arabia since 2017. While the reported data clearly identify $1.5M of these funds as tuition payments, this is likely a gross underestimate, since most of the entries do not specify a purpose for the funds. Additionally, even the $23M is an underestimate, since universities have to report only funds totaling $250K or above in a single year to the federal government. There have also been instances when North Carolina universities have failed to report money above this threshold from Turkey and China.

International students sponsored by foreign governments pose unique problems. That’s because foreign governments attach expectations that students must follow, often in direct contradiction with our presumed values of free speech and academic freedom. The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, the agency of the Saudi government that manages its international student scholarship programs, has censored what students can say about their country while stateside and has even spied on them. The Chinese government has also spied on its students in the United States. While, at the very least, North Carolina universities need to provide more transparency around foreign student sponsors, there may be a need to attach conditions to the enrollment of sponsored students in order to curtail the invasive activities of foreign sponsors.

Foreign governments attach expectations that international students must follow, often in direct contradiction with our values.What Can Be Done?

International students can pose serious risks to American universities, whether through importing foreign tribal grievances into campus politics or by being unwitting vectors of influence for adversarial governments. Lawmakers around the country are grappling with how to address these issues in a way that balances the benefits of international student enrollment with the costs. In doing so, there are a few key points that should be top of mind.

First, lawmakers should be aware that higher-education administrators will tolerate unacceptable behavior by international students to keep the money flowing. MIT, for instance, announced in November 2023 that it wouldn’t suspend student protesters due to “collateral consequences” like “visa issues.” Universities also hold lower academic standards for international students. Although international students must pass an English-proficiency exam, professors are often surprised at how much students struggle to speak English. Investigations show some of these students have found ways to cheat the system even before setting foot on campus. Some struggling students turn to third-party companies to finish homework assignments. Professors have found little support from academic administrations when they express concerns of cheating and low English-speaking abilities. Thus, university administrators cannot be trusted to handle the problem on their own.

Second, incentives to enroll international students are only increasing with the implementation of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals at universities. Universities are now incorporating international student enrollment into their DEI measures. For instance, SUNY Albany rewards academic departments with larger budgets for increasing international student enrollment. One way to cool off international student enrollment is to get rid of DEI.

Finally, directing enrollment restrictions at sponsored international students from countries of concern may be the most effective way to mitigate risks while preserving the benefits of international students. The Florida government recently passed a bill that restricted all international student enrollment from certain countries of concern to address national-security risks. This broad restriction, however, may backfire, as a lawsuit claims that the bill engages in national-origin discrimination. Focusing on sponsored international students would be a more effective way to target restrictions where they matter most without getting into legal trouble.

In the good times, it is easy to get along and believe that cultural differences are unimportant. But the good times don’t last forever. October 7 showed universities that cultural differences on campus are real and important. It is naive to expect students who hold grievances against America or its allies to respect our values on campus. Instead, North Carolina lawmakers and universities should take the risks of mass international student enrollment more seriously.

Neetu Arnold is a research fellow at the National Association of Scholars.