PORTLAND, Ore. — President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and controversial travel bans have sent a chill through Oregon’s cash-strapped public universities, which rely more than ever on lucrative tuition from international students.

Since Trump took office, applications from international students have dropped by double-digit percentages at Portland State University alone.

The stakes are high.

If the collective international undergraduate population at Oregon’s Big Three were pooled into a separate school, it would be the fourth largest university in the state, at more than 6,200 students. At each of the mega universities, foreign students pay more than two-and-a-half times the in-state tuition rate, making them a desirable population that has grown over the past decade.

University leaders are finding ways to fight back. Administrators and admissions staff are now forced to be proactively compassionate, reassuring international and undocumented students brought to the U.S. as children that they will arrive to a safe and supportive environment.

While he was still president of Portland State University, Wim Wiewel invited all Iraqi, Iranian, Libyan, Syrian and Yemeni students to lunch to assure them he had their backs despite a recently signed executive order that said the exact opposite.

Wiewel organized the lunch in early February as both a gesture of goodwill and pointed rebuke of White House policy. It wouldn’t be the last.

Trump’s scattershot governing style and tendency to float policies one day only to walk back from them the next has kept Oregon university leaders on alert since he took office in January. In addition to the travel ban affecting several Muslim majority countries, there was the revised travel ban, the idea to slash the number of skilled foreign worker permits, the Spartan budget proposals for scientific research and, most recently, the abrupt decision to phase out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in six months unless Congress takes action.

“It feels like we haven’t stopped,” Margaret Everett, PSU’s interim provost and vice president for international affairs, said of the past nine months.

Everett said the level of uncertainty is unprecedented during her 20 years at the urban campus and is “very unsettling for our international students in particular.”

Dennis Galvan, vice provost for international affairs at the University of Oregon, said 2017 is a time for “doubling down” on what schools can do to bring international students to Oregon.

“How can we make sure (the Trump administration) doesn’t create erosion in what we’re trying to build?” Galvan said.

INTERNATIONAL APPLICATIONS

Portland State, University of Oregon and Oregon State have increasingly leaned on international students to fill seats. The schools depend on the influx of diversity and routinely send their presidents and deans abroad to woo students.

The growth in the past decade has been dramatic. Oregon State has nearly quadrupled its number of international students in the past decade.

Public universities are constantly searching for more cash, a product of state support failing to keep up with rising pension and personnel costs. With the limited number of graduating Oregonians to choose from, schools have become more reliant on out-of-state and international students, who pay top-shelf out-of-state tuition, to pay the bills.

But Portland State saw undergraduate applications from foreign students fall 11 percent this year. Applications for graduate programs plunged 17 percent.

The declines were alarming, prompting concerns that “the rhetoric is having an impact,” Everett said.

So the university stepped up its outreach to let students know Trump didn’t speak for the university and assure them “they would see a warm welcome here,” she said.

Ultimately, Portland State expects enrollment to be flat or down slightly for both groups.

Last fall, the University of Oregon noticed a drop in the number of international students who had opened online application forms. While he couldn’t cite specific declines, Galvan said the school nearly doubled the amount of emails and other efforts to reach students who had begun but not completed an application.

The university sent a recruitment team to Asia last spring — in addition to the annual summer trip — to try and close the deal for students who hadn’t yet committed.

“We did that just to make sure our numbers didn’t diminish,” Galvan said. The university also hired a third staffer to work full-time recruiting international students.

International students pay $35,736 in tuition and fees each year to attend the University of Oregon, or nearly three times more than a full-time in-state student. PSU’s in-state price-tag is the cheapest at $9,567, but international students would pay $26,082.

In the most recent fiscal year, out-of-state and international undergraduates accounted for more than 80 percent of the University of Oregon’s net tuition.

Galvan said out-of-state students, including international ones, keep the cost of tuition lower for Oregonians.

Oregon State, the state’s largest university with more than 30,000 students, hasn’t felt the downturn as much. Officials estimate its international student population will be down roughly 1 percent.

“We’ve been able to keep the positive message out there,” said Kate Peterson, associate provost for enrollment management.

Oregon State benefits from its engineering program, which typically lands more international students, and its wider selection of graduate programs. International students comprise roughly 30 percent of the university’s full-time graduate student population.

HOME TO 11,000 DREAMERS

International students are not the only group feeling vulnerable in the face of anti-immigrant and nationalist messages emanating from the White House.

Oregon is home to an estimated 11,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as teens or as young children and are served by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Many of those kids, known as Dreamers, are in college, though most schools say they don’t directly track how many are enrolled.

Liliana Luna, multicultural center coordinator at Portland Community College’s Rock Creek campus, said the last school year was exhausting for students and staff.

“People felt empowered to be hateful,” Luna said, citing Trump’s campaign rhetoric, “and xenophobic.”

Luna, a 26-year-old DACA recipient and part-time master’s student at Portland State, said the last year was just the latest chapter in a long fight for undocumented students.

Her parents brought her to Oregon when she was 15, and she first started taking classes at Portland Community College as an undocumented student — not knowing the language or the education system.

She’s spent much of her life in Oregon pushing for undocumented students’ rights. She led a fundraising effort to bring in scholarships at the college for undocumented students, hauling in $25,000 the first year.

Earlier this month, Luna landed a $50,000 Meyer Memorial Trust grant to create what she says is a first-of-its-kind DACA resource center at PCC’s Rock Creek campus. Twenty students and 20 families will have access to legal advice, mentoring services and workshops on college readiness in a safe location on campus.

The goal is to empower students and “let them know that they are here because they’re worth it,” she said, “they can stand up to things that are not right.”

Oregon’s university presidents have a history of standing alongside students like Luna.

On Sept. 6, the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission sent out an unprecedented statement signed by the presidents of seven public universities, 17 community colleges and 18 private nonprofit institutions voicing deep concern for the White House’s DACA decision.

“These students represent a shining promise for Oregon’s future,” the presidents wrote. “They are particularly resilient and driven to realize their highest potentials through Oregon higher education.”

Luna said it’s heartening to hear positive remarks about Dreamers, but at the end of the day, she knows change occurs from the ground up.

“We’re the hostages in our own political game,” she said of the fight to pass a comprehensive Dream Act. “They’re negotiating with our lives and existences.”

While she’s worried about the future, she’s not helplessly worried. “I’m proactive and working every day.”


Information from: The Oregonian/OregonLive, http://www.oregonlive.com