Empty Seats

Written by: Jessica Landgraf

Primary Source:  Green & Write, February 9, 2017

What might the travel ban mean for university campuses?

The last several weeks have been very busy in the world of immigration policy. The anxiety on campus, especially for graduate students making summer research plans, is palpable. The new travel ban, although suspended at the moment, could mean that international graduate students from the seven listed countries may not be allowed back into the United States if they leave to do research abroad. As someone planning to conduct international research this coming summer, I have been discussing the situation with colleagues (many of whom are international graduate students). Pending outcomes of court cases, there is the real possibility that summer international research opportunities may be jeopardized due to the risks of not being allowed to return to the U.S.

Response and Reality

This realization is pressing for college and university campuses across the US, not only for those students from the seven affected countries, but also by faculty members and administrators who understand the potential academic and intellectual loss. In response professors, faculty, and administrators are speaking out and taking action. They have the firsthand, day-to-day understanding of what this ban means for individual students and campuses as a whole.

Stories of students caught-up in the aftermath and confusion caused by the signing of the ban have been numerous. Even being married to US citizen does not protect individuals without green cards, and those in this situation will now have to contemplate their options.

Higher Education as Export

This ban is in the middle of admission season and could potentially make students thinking about studying internationally in the US more wary on that decision.

For the seven countries named in the ban alone, over 17,000 students were apart of the US higher education system in 2015-16. Over 57% of those were in STEM majors, and over 77% were graduate students. An unintended domino effect of losing international students (who are more likely to major in STEM fields) could mean fewer stay in the US, impacting future US-based innovation and growth. 

This data is corroborated by an article from Inside Higher Ed, which in 2013 reported that a majority of the graduate students in STEM fields at US universities are international students. At some universities international students make up more than 90% of the STEM population. Although this may be seen as troubling for some, Gaurav Khanna from the Center for Global Development points out:

The US is the largest “exporter” of higher education services, and the ban could hit universities with a revenue loss of around $200 million a year, with larger impacts on the local economies around campuses. In addition, full-fee paying international students allow state universities to keep the doors open for in-state students.

In other words, we all have something to lose, and the reality of this is likely to hit as quickly as the ban did.


The implications of a travel ban have wide reaching implications, especially for international PhD students. For some, it is not only their academic lives that hang in the balance, but their actual lives and possibilities for the future.

One such example was reported by Times Higher Education: An Iranian PhD student at Yale, a US green card holder, doesn’t have the option to return home to Iran. He is a human rights activist and could be arrested if necessity caused him to return. His dissertation research will take him outside of the US and there will now be a constant fear that when he leaves he won’t be allowed to return.

This PhD student’s situation shouldn’t be viewed as singular. It should be acknowledged as the new reality that is now facing a large population of undergraduate and graduate students. This will be a new issue that no institution catering to international students will be able to ignore, especially if anti-immigrant policies continue to expand.

Contact Jessica: landgr16@msu.edu

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Jessica Landgraf

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