Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine on the Columbia University campus in New York City on Nov. 14, 2023

Andrew Lichtenstein/ Corbis via Getty Images

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The Takeover

A massive increase in foreign money and students on American campuses is driving radicalization and subsidizing institutional failure

by
Neetu Arnold
February 27, 2024
Students participate in a protest in support of Palestine on the Columbia University campus in New York City on Nov. 14, 2023

Andrew Lichtenstein/ Corbis via Getty Images

Something new and peculiar stands out about the wave of anti-Israel student activism that has rocked American university campuses since October: There is a visibly more radical element to these protests. Student activists almost seemed to take glee in Hamas’ massacre of innocent civilians—when they weren’t denying that it happened at all. The antisemitic rage struck a different tone than the typical anti-Israel fare that has become a central part of American student activism since Students for a Democratic Society formed in the 1960s.

So what changed? The answer is clear to anyone who watched the videos: These student protests are no longer composed solely of left-wing American students steeped in critical theory and post-colonial ideology. The protests are now havens for foreign students, especially those from Arab and Muslim countries, with their own set of nationalist and tribal grievances against Israel and the United States. In some cases, such foreign students appear to lead the protests in their pro-terrorism chants—some of which are in Arabic, or translations of Arabic slogans.

What we are witnessing is the latest consequence of a quiet revolution in higher education: the internationalization of the American university. Today, there are more than 1 million foreign students enrolled at American universities, making up more than 5% of the total student population. At elite universities, the situation is much more extreme: International students make up almost 25% of the student population.

University websites; National Center for Education Statistics

The process of internationalization was slow at first, but it has rapidly accelerated in the past two decades. Since the Institute of International Education started to keep track of foreign student enrollment in 1948, it took over 50 years for enrollment to increase from 25,000 to more than 500,000 by 2000. But it only took 15 years after that for the number of international students to double to its current level of 1 million.

The motivations of universities to admit so many international students are twofold. Foreign students, first and foremost, serve as cash cows. They disproportionately pay full price for tuition and housing, whether it comes from sponsorships by foreign governments or their own families’ largesse. The deal is even better for public universities—international students pay the out-of-state price, which is significantly higher than the tuition rate for in-state students.

Increasing international student enrollment also fits neatly into universities’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) goals. While this particular phenomenon is more recent, it is crucial for understanding the current shifts in international student recruitment. It also provides universities with a moral justification for their equivocating response to egregious—and perhaps even illegal—acts by international students in recent months.

There is a conspicuous lack of transparency regarding the foreign funds that universities receive through international student tuition and housing payments. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. Universities obtain an obvious financial boon by increasing international student enrollment at the expense of domestic students. But this lack of transparency poses deeper problems. Many international students—around 30,000 in the 2023 academic year—are sponsored by foreign governments, foreign private sponsors, and other international organizations. When such governments and groups have an adversarial relationship with the United States, or promote anti-American agendas, their sponsored students can sometimes pose national security risks.

To shed light on the flood of foreign tuition money into U.S. universities, I obtained data on international student tuition payments at several state universities through public records requests. Texas A&M University was of particular interest—it is one of the top recipients of foreign funds nationwide and a major public research university. Pre-pandemic, international students comprised 8% to 9% of Texas A&M’s student body. It dropped slightly to 7% of students post-pandemic.

The top countries of origin for foreign students are typically China and India, and Texas A&M is no exception. These countries are therefore the top sources of international student revenue to American universities. But Texas A&M’s data allows for an investigation of international students who are sponsored by foreign governments and organizations, rather than simply paying their own way. And the top countries of origin for sponsored students tell a more troublesome story.

From 2010 to 2022, Saudi Arabia was the top country of origin for sponsored international students at Texas A&M. The university received a whopping $293 million in tuition revenue from Saudi Arabian organizations during this period. Second to Saudi Arabia was Turkey, from which the university received $108 million in tuition revenue. Rounding out the top five were Mexico at $56 million, Kuwait at $43 million, and Thailand at $36 million.

In other words, 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.

These Middle Eastern international student sponsorships do not consist of decentralized, private scholarships; rather, they are massive funding operations that come straight from the government. Out of the $293 million in Saudi Arabian sponsored tuition revenue at Texas A&M, half came directly from the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission (SACM), the government agency in charge of administering funding to Saudi students abroad. The vast majority of the remainder came from Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company. Kuwait, Oman, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are no different—government agencies provide the vast majority of funds.

Middle Eastern states have also provided funding to American universities to establish Middle East and Islamic studies centers, which are in turn tools for attracting more foreign tuition money. They are also hotbeds of left-wing and anti-Israel activism. Both Harvard and Yale received funds from Saudi Arabian donors to establish Islamic studies centers, totaling $30 million. Brown and Columbia boast Palestinian studies centers. Between 2020 and 2022, Brown reported receiving almost $2 million from entities in the United Arab Emirates, Panama, and England to “provide support for a professorship in Palestinian Studies within Middle East Studies.” Furthermore, two separate donations from the United Arab Emirates, which totaled $400,000 in 2022, specified that the funds should support students from Middle Eastern territories such as Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. The dean of the University of Arkansas’ King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies largely attributed its own success in recruiting Middle Eastern students to the presence of the center.

The funding comes with strings attached. The Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission, which sponsors some two-thirds of the Saudi international student population in the U.S., has actively spied on its sponsored students. In 2017, the SACM published a list of rules for Saudi students in the United States, which stated that students could not engage in political and religious discussion. They also could not have contact with the media. The Saudi Embassy in Washington has even warned students via text messages to avoid participating in “anti-Saudi” events.

A different form of spying has occurred with Chinese students who study in the United States. For instance, a Chinese student at the Illinois Institute of Technology recruited spies to steal top information from American companies focused on building aerospace and satellite technology. The censorship, however, is similar. Chinese students are frequently bullied into silence, both by the Chinese government and even their own parents, if they criticize governmental policies such as China’s authoritarian lockdowns during the COVID pandemic.

So even in the vanishingly rare event that universities attempt to cultivate an environment of academic freedom and free speech on campus, it will never fully apply to sponsored international students from countries with authoritarian governments. In many ways, this defeats the main purpose of having international students on American campuses in the first place: the free and open cultural exchange that occurs between them and American students. What kind of skewed cultural education will American students receive about Saudi Arabia and China if their friends from those countries aren’t even allowed to criticize their own governments, and if the main source of teaching and scholarship on such countries comes out of “centers” funded by those governments?

American universities also compromise on their academic standards to keep the international tuition money flowing. In order to maintain relationships with massive foreign student sponsors, universities will often accept students with weak English-speaking skills who can’t perform adequately in classes. While this can also happen with self-paying students, it’s a much larger problem with sponsored students because the sponsors exercise real financial leverage against the universities. Because universities engage in strategic collaborations with foreign sponsors to increase research and grow student exchange programs, administrators tend to overlook poor academic preparation—even as poorly prepared foreign students engage in academic dishonesty.

Idaho State University professors saw these problems firsthand in the mid-2010s when the school increased its number of sponsored Saudi and Kuwaiti students to almost 10% of total enrollment. Classes that enrolled more than 20 Middle Eastern students saw extreme failure rates: 90% in physics, 75% in introductory English, and more than 60% in math. Professors said the international students were not prepared to handle these classes. One administrator noted that 80%-90% of cheating cases concerned Middle Eastern students. The university bought anti-plagiarism software, installed security cameras, and tracked internet usage to confront academic dishonesty. But it wasn’t enough. As a former physics professor at the university, Martin Hackworth, told The New York Times in 2016, “They [Idaho State] viewed these students as A.T.M. machines,” to the tune of “$20,000 per student in annual out-of-state tuition, nearly three times what state residents pay,” the NYT reported at the time.

Aside from the financial benefits, higher education also uses foreign students to prop up their diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. One way they do this is to lump the increasing number of international students, regardless of the country of origin, into minority categories and claim it as a win for diversity on campus. The universities most likely to engage in this approach are those that have lost international students, those responding to budget shortfalls, and lower-tier universities that already struggle to attract international students.

The State University of New York (SUNY) system, which has faced declining enrollment problems for years, is a prime example. Between 2017 and 2022, international undergraduate student enrollment declined by 35% across SUNY comprehensive colleges. SUNY Brockport’s 2023 strategic plan characterized this as a “loss of out-of-state tuition revenue,” an explicit acknowledgement of their underlying financial motives. SUNY Brockport plans to implement DEI policies to increase international student enrollment, with vague suggestions such as “rewrite academic policies…to center kindness and understanding” and to hold events that celebrate international students.

SUNY Albany, which lost 500 international students between 2017 and 2022, codifies the link between DEI and international student enrollment into its departmental budget metrics with a lexical sleight of hand, swapping DEI for DII: diversity, inclusion, internationalization. For each of its academic departments, the “Diversity, Inclusion, Internationalization” category comprises 14% of the overall performance score. Within this category, at least 3 points are dedicated to international student recruitment, international collaborations, and “internationalization of the curriculum.” A department that increases its proportion of international students can expect to receive a higher budget allocation for the following year.

Lower-tier universities have also turned to third-party recruitment services to help market their brand to an international clientele and increase foreign student enrollment. As the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) wrote in its 2023 diversity document:

Institutions with less global visibility or not so appealing geographical locations have partnered with third party agencies which not only facilitates the recruitment process, but also brings to speed prospective applicants with the necessary toll [sic] for success in university life.

The University of Illinois-Springfield (UIS), for example, partnered with third-party recruiter Shorelight. Foreign students could easily overlook UIS when the state boasts more prestigious options like the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. But since UIS partnered with Shorelight in 2022, it has nearly returned to its 2015 enrollment levels, now boasting more than 1,000 international students (22% of the student population). Shorelight’s recruitment overwhelmingly captures Indian applicants—95%—which is ironically homogeneous considering the university’s diversity goals.

For universities that have the financial capabilities, another way to incorporate DEI is to engage in redistributive recruitment tactics that increase the number of students from “underrepresented” countries. The Association of International Educators (NAFSA) recommended in a May 2023 brief that universities place an “emphasis on increasing diversity of source countries and of students’ socioeconomic background.”

Africa is proving to be a hot market for universities to expand their recruitment efforts. Nigeria has been a consistent source for foreign students in America since at least the 2000s. But in 2023, for the first time, Ghana made the list of leading places of origin. As African countries develop and gain political stability, universities hope to allocate more admissions spots to these students. To ease their social transition, universities will likely admit students from newer countries in bulk (a “cohort model of recruitment”). While this can be beneficial for the students, such change, and the potential creation of isolated enclaves, can be disruptive for the campus environment and the surrounding communities, especially in small, culturally conservative cities, as was the case in Idaho State in Pocatello (population: 56,000).

Increasing socioeconomic diversity among international students will be a more challenging goal for universities. Excluding external funding sources, international students must be well-off to afford the out-of-state costs. For context, the wealthiest middle-class households in India earn 3 million rupees annually, which is equivalent to $36,000. The average out-of-state cost at a public university is $27,000. Many Indian students, therefore, must come from the very upper reaches of the economic ladder.

Amherst College is ahead of the trend on African international student recruitment. Since strategically recruiting from the continent in 2007, 20% of international students at the college are now from Africa. Xiafeng Wan, an associate dean and coordinator for international student recruitment at Amherst College, recommends that universities recruit from Africa only if they can meet 100% of the financial needs of students.

If this recommendation is applied generally to low- and middle-income international students, universities will work to raise funds for international students even as American students struggle to pay for college. This means that, rather than foreign students indirectly subsidizing American students, the money might flow in the other direction.

Perhaps the most underdiscussed fact about foreign students is the aid they receive from American universities—and thus American taxpayers.

Universities will charge international students the out-of-state tuition rate at state colleges by default. But many universities, even public ones, offer deep discounts to foreign students through institutional aid. The percentage of American universities that offer students some kind of institutional aid increased from 35% in 2001 to nearly 50% by 2016, according to the American Council on Education. And these discounts are considerable: The average institutional aid for international undergraduates at Ivy League universities ranges from $44,000 to $79,000. The median percentage of international students receiving this aid is 50%.

Seven universities, consisting mostly of Ivy League and other elite private universities, offer international students need-blind admissions and full financial aid. Dartmouth College is actively working to establish a $90 million fund that would offer need-blind admissions for international students. The University of Pennsylvania received a $10 million donation from Wharton alumnus Daniel Sundheim in 2023 that establishes financial aid support for international students who demonstrate need.

A key justification for these universities to subsidize international student education is diversity. Two months prior to announcing Sundheim’s donation for international student aid, Penn’s communication team published an article discussing how international students offer “diverse perspectives” to the “entire campus community.” International students now echo this sentiment when advocating for expanding foreign student recruitment. In an article for The Daily Princetonian, a first-year student from Taiwan argues for increased financial support for low-income international students to “achieve multifaceted diversity that goes beyond America’s borders.”

Outside of elite private universities, institutional aid can differ greatly. The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the University of Maryland-College Park do not offer any institutional aid to international students. But Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin do. In fact, Texas colleges offer some Mexican nationals the subsidized in-state tuition rate through the Mexican Citizens for Financial Need program. California recently adopted a similar program, inspired by Texas. And as international students from other countries find out about these programs, they begin to demand similar privileges for Mexican nationals: “One international student didn’t understand why someone living across the border could get [reduced] tuition but not them.”

During a time when universities desperately beg state legislatures to increase their funding, it’s insulting to taxpayers that universities continue to spend money subsidizing the education of international students. Many American families enter into massive amounts of debt to send their children to college to pursue a better life. Clearly, universities have the means to ease the burden of college costs if they have resources to offer noncitizens.

For the universities, it’s a win-win. While most international students will continue to generate revenue for universities, the proportion of subsidized international students continues to rise. And we, taxpayers and families of students, are the ones paying for it. When public universities that receive support from the state for their operations spend institutional aid on foreign students, they are partially using taxpayer funds. For private universities, access to institutional aid for international students means less aid for domestic students. As a result, families of domestic students end up paying more to cover the costs of international students, who also allow the universities to showcase their DEI ideological bona fides.

The hateful spectacle on American campuses since October, and the complicity of the universities, have made international student programs more politically vulnerable than ever.

When MIT President Sally Kornbluth admitted to Congress in December that university administrators failed to discipline student protesters who were calling for genocide because of their international status, the public briefly awoke to these issues. In the name of diversity, equity, and inclusion, higher education administrators continue to offer special treatment to international students—covering for hateful, and possibly illegal, behavior in order to protect a valuable source of revenue. It’s time for this dangerous arrangement to end.

Neetu Arnold is a Research Fellow at the National Association of Scholars and a Fellow with Young Voices. Follow her on X @neetu_arnold

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