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Students walk in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass, on Aug. 13, 2019. (AP/Krupa) Students walk in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass, on Aug. 13, 2019. (AP/Krupa)

Students walk in Harvard Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass, on Aug. 13, 2019. (AP/Krupa)

Bill McCarthy
By Bill McCarthy July 10, 2020

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes right on economic impact of international college students

If Your Time is short

  • A new Trump administration directive would bar foreign college students from staying in the U.S. if they take all their courses online.

  • Hayes’ statistics are accurate. Education was the sixth largest U.S. service export in 2019, the International Trade Administration told PolitiFact.

A new Trump administration directive targeting international students at U.S. colleges is being challenged by universities in court — and by pundits on the cable news channels.

The new Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidance would bar foreign college students from staying in the country if they take all their courses online.

International students enrolled at Harvard University and other U.S. colleges that have moved fall-semester classes entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic will have to leave the U.S. or transfer to a school with in-person teaching, according to the new rule.

The rule, if put into effect, could trim the number of foreign students in the U.S. and at specific universities. It could also deal a blow to the U.S. economy, said MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who argued on his primetime TV show that the policy has "no upside."

"Higher education is one of America's strongest export sectors," Hayes said, while displaying a chart on U.S. education exports. "Over 1 million international students studied at American universities, (in the) 2018-19 school year. They contributed over $40 billion to the economy."

Hayes’ statistics are accurate. In 2019, U.S. service exports from education totaled roughly $44 billion, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That made education the sixth largest service export for the year, behind services such as personal travel and professional and management consulting, a spokesperson for the International Trade Administration said. 

Academic experts and representatives from nonprofits focused on international education also backed Hayes’ claims. An ICE spokesperson said Hayes’ statement was accurate but declined to comment further due to pending litigation.

"Higher education is one of the few areas in which we have a big surplus of exports over imports," said Dick Startz, professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who wrote about the economics of education in a 2017 article for the Brookings Institution.

Education as an export

All three of the statistics Hayes cited are correct. 

More than 1 million international students studied at U.S. institutions during the 2018-19 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, two nonprofits dedicated to international education.

The two organizations reported that those international students contributed more than $40 billion to the U.S. economy during the year. Experts said higher education can be considered an export because international students pay their tuition and living expenses to colleges and universities using money from abroad.

"International students are buying an American education," Startz said. "Hence it’s an export."

Exports from education amounted to roughly $44 billion in 2019, up from about $42.6 billion in 2018, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That’s more than the U.S. made from exporting many other goods and services in the same timeframe. 

Education ranked sixth among service exports in 2019, the International Trade Administration spokesperson told us. It was fifth in 2018.

Those numbers make sense when you factor in the cost of college, said Judith Scott-Clayton, professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

"If there are 1.1 million international students in the country, and each of them spends about $40,000 on U.S. tuition and living expenses, that gets you to $44 billion," she said.

In an email to PolitiFact, Hayes also cited the International Trade Administration and an article in the New York Times Magazine in which an Institute of International Education adviser was quoted saying "higher education is one of America’s biggest exports."

But the article said U.S. schools were losing their international appeal for a number of reasons, including rising tuition costs and various policies enacted under President Donald Trump.

Rachel Banks, NAFSA’s senior director for public policy and legislative strategy, said in a statement that new international student enrollment is down over 10% since the fall of 2016, a trend NAFSA estimates has cost the U.S. economy $11.8 billion.

"That’s before the impacts of a global pandemic and related travel restrictions, several presidential proclamations targeting immigrants and nonimmigrants, and this guidance," Banks said. "Therefore, we don’t anticipate this downward trajectory to reverse itself anytime soon."

Our ruling

Hayes said, "Higher education is one of America's strongest export sectors. Over 1 million international students studied at American universities, 2018-19 school year. They contributed over $40 billion to the economy."

Government agencies, academic experts and nonprofit organizations said Hayes’ statistics are correct. The money the U.S. gets from foreign students studying at its colleges and universities makes education one of the country’s top service exports.

We rate this statement True.

Our Sources

MSNBC, "All In With Chris Hayes," July 7, 2020

International Trade Administration, "U.S. Education Service Exports," accessed July 9, 2020

NAFSA: Association of International Educators, "The United States of America Benefits from International Students," accessed July 9, 2020

The New York Times, "Harvard and M.I.T. Sue to Stop Trump Visa Rules for Foreign Students," July 8, 2020

CNBC, "New rules for international students could cost U.S. colleges $41 billion," July 7, 2020

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, "SEVP modifies temporary exemptions for nonimmigrant students taking online courses during fall 2020 semester," July 6, 2020

U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, "Table 2.1. U.S. Trade in Services, by Type of Service," June 30, 2020

The Chronicle of Higher Education, "Here’s a List of Colleges’ Plans for Reopening in the Fall," April 23, 2020

NAFSA: Association of International Educators, "Losing Talent 2020," March 2020

Visual Capitalist, "The Impact of International Students on the U.S. Economy," Feb. 24, 2020

The Institute of International Education, "Number of International Students in the United States Hits All-Time High," Nov. 18, 2019

The New York Times Magazine, "One of America’s Most Vital Exports, Education, Never Goes Abroad, but It Still Faces Threats," Jan. 3, 2019

The Brookings Institution, "Sealing the border could block one of America’s crucial exports: Education," Jan. 31, 2017

Email interview with Chris Hayes, MSNBC host, July 8, 2020

Email interview with Tim Truman, public affairs official with the International Trade Administration, July 9, 2020

Statement from the Institute for International Education, July 9, 2020

Email exchange with Carissa Cutrell, acting deputy press secretary for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, July 8, 2020

Email interview with Dick Startz, professor of economics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, July 8, 2020

Email interview with Judith Scott-Clayton, professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, July 8, 2020

Statement from Rachel Banks, NAFSA senior director for public policy and legislative strategy, July 8, 2020

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MSNBC’s Chris Hayes right on economic impact of international college students

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