Sahab Masoumian, a 22-year-old engineering student at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Calif., hasn’t been able to think of anything but President Donald Trump’s ban on visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries since his academic term began on Monday. “If I tell you I’m not fearful, I’d be lying. I’m scared,” he said.
Masoumian was born in Tehran, Iran, and lived in Turkey for about one year while his family sought asylum in the U.S. Now a permanent resident, Masoumian hopes to transfer to California State Polytechnic University-Pomona and take up aerospace engineering. He dreams of landing a job at Boeing Co., the world’s largest plane maker. But since Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration, Masoumian has been questioning whether he wants to remain in the U.S. after he graduates college.
It’s the opposite of what Republican Party leaders used to hope for. Mitt Romney in 2012 said he wanted to “staple a green card” to every foreign recipient of an advanced degree.
“These are very financially desirable students,” said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “These tend to be people who earn quite a bit of money, come up with new innovations, and they tend to pay a lot of taxes.”
U.S. colleges stand to lose as much as $700 million in annual revenue if Trump’s ban on visitors from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen becomes permanent, according to estimates by College Factual, a higher education research website. University presidents fear the policy could imperil the U.S.’s standing as the top destination for the world’s smartest students. In addition to hurting university bottom lines, disrupting the talent pipeline in such a way could curb economic growth, they said.
Trump’s executive order, issued on Friday, bars most citizens of the seven countries from visiting the U.S. for at least the next three months. Northeastern University, Texas A&M University, Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Southern California—each of which enroll more students from those seven nations than any other school in the U.S.—could each lose at least $10 million a year, according to College Factual.
College leaders have been scrambling over the past few days to determine the impact of Trump’s move on current students and faculty, as well as possible long-term consequences for U.S. higher education. Some students and professors reported being detained at U.S. airports en route back to campus while others are stranded outside the country, despite previous federal approval to study or work in the U.S. Universities across the nation released statements in the wake of the executive order, decrying the crackdown.
The order “is already causing damage, and should end as quickly as possible,” Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, said in a statement.
College Factual’s $700 million figure is based on government visa figures and assumes that foreign students don’t get tuition breaks and pay full undergraduate tuition, fees, and room and board. There’s a chance the estimates are too low, if many foreign students in expensive graduate programs also pay full price, or too high, since not every student granted a visa ends up enrolling.
But the figures highlight the significant number of foreign students, particularly Iranians, that Trump’s order could scare away, depressing college revenues. Large colleges tend to make more money off foreign students, research shows. Other research has found that this dynamic helps reduce tuition costs for U.S. students. Foreign students also boost the U.S. economy by more than $30 billion.
The cost to colleges could extend beyond immigration from the countries named in the order. Varun Soni, dean of religious life at USC, said he’s already hearing from Muslim and foreign students on campus who are concerned that the Trump administration could widen its ban to include other countries. Brendan Cantwell, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, said that a general fear among foreign students that they’re no longer welcome in the U.S. could be enough to dampen revenue at a number of schools.
Limiting travel from one country in particular would have a dramatic effect on U.S. education. Iran sent close to 12,300 students to study at U.S. colleges during the most recent academic year, 11th highest in the world, according to Institute of International Education Inc. The number of Iranian students enrolled at U.S. colleges was more than double the number of students from the six other nations on Trump’s list combined.
About 78 percent of Iranian students in the U.S. are enrolled in graduate programs, the highest share of any country in the world, Institute of International Education figures show.
Nearly 80 percent of Iranian students are in so-called STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Former President Barack Obama said graduating more STEM students was key to the nation’s future. Only India, at 80.1 percent, produces a higher share of foreign U.S. STEM students.
Before Jan. 20, Masoumian assumed there was no country that better positioned him for success than the U.S. But with his Iranian girlfriend living in Canada, and a fear that the U.S. may no longer welcome immigrants, he’s now considering moving. “I never thought I would need such a backup plan,” Masoumian said.
Sina Baghbani, an electrical engineering doctoral student at Texas A&M, said several of his Iranian classmates have spouses who now are stranded in the Islamic Republic. “Many don’t have much motivation to keep working,” Baghbani said. “A combination of anger and hopelessness for the future.”