Law school administrators say concerns are growing from foreign students about how the myriad immigration and travel policies emerging from Washington could impact their plans to obtain LL.M degrees in the United States.
The advanced law degree programs bring in about $350 million annually to the more than 100 U.S. law schools that offer them, with around 10,000 foreign students coming here each year to pursue an LL.M.
LL.M faculty are worried that those lucrative programs could lose their luster should the United States gain a reputation as unwelcoming to foreigners, and they say some LL.M applicants are grappling with whether they want to come to such a place.
For now, however, those concerns don’t yet seem to have resulted in decreased interest: LL.M applications are up this year at many schools.
The most involved conversation that Robert Ahdieh, vice dean at Emory University School of Law, had was not with a lawyer from a Muslim-majority country, but one from Canada.
“It was a combination of, ‘How welcoming is the U.S. right now?’ And the politics of coming to the United States,” Ahdieh recalled. “It was a little bit of, ‘What is the signal I’m sending by coming?’ I am in some sense complicit in a U.S. policy that says, you’re welcome to come here from Canada, but you others, you’re not welcome here.’”
Tomas Orsula, a current LL.M student at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law who is from the Slovak Republic, said President Donald Trump’s immigration policies would have made him think twice about coming to the United States were he an applicant this year.
“I would be concerned how far it could goes, because he started with Muslims, then he could extent it to other groups of people which he doesn’t like,” Orsula said. “And that could be really harmful, because as we know, there are many groups of people he discriminated [against] even during his presidential campaign.”
More than 1 million students came from abroad to U.S. colleges and universities in 2016, contributing $32.8 billion to the economy, according to the Open Doors Report—an annual research collaboration between the Institute of International Education Inc. and the U.S Department of State.
If, because of more restrictive policies against foreigners trying to enter the United States, LL.M. students decide to attend competing programs in the United Kingdom or Australia, it could prove disastrous to many law schools here, which rely more heavily than ever on tuition revenue from foreign students enrolled in LL.M programs.
The thousands of foreign LL.M students coming each year to the United States adds $348 million annually to law school coffers, assuming those students pay the average law school tuition rate of $35,312. (Most foreign LL.M students pay full tuition and don’t have access to the generous scholarships available to domestic students, and many of the largest LL.M programs charge closer to $60,000 than the average).
“Up until now, the U.S. has been the diamond standard for education,” said William Byrnes, associate dean for special projects at Texas A&M University School of Law and the chair-elect of the Association of American Law School’s section of graduate programs for non-U.S. lawyers. “This is so important to us from an income point of view.”
Since taking office in January, Trump has unveiled his much-litigated Muslim travel ban; reiterated his campaign promise to build a wall along the Mexico border; said he intends to tighten up the visa process; and has hinted that border agents may start routine searches of foreigner’s cellphones.
At the same time, an LL.M from a U.S. law school is viewed internationally as a sterling credential that can boost the career prospects of foreign lawyers in their home countries, while a handful of jurisdictions allow LL.M graduates to sit for their bar exams.
The good news for legal educators is that the number of individuals applying to LL.M programs in the United States was either steady or up from a year ago at nearly a dozen law schools queried last week. At the same time, however, LL.M faculty said they are watching closely to see if a higher-than-normal percentage of admitted foreign students decide not to attend this fall after all in light of uncertainty and concern over shifting travel and immigration policies in the United States.
“It could be that they’re more likely to look at other options,” said Toni Jaeger-Fine, assistant dean for international and non-J.D. programs at Fordham University School of Law.
Jaeger-Fine noted that Fordham’s LL.M. program for fall 2017 ticked up about 10 percent. She added, “It’s too soon to tell” whether the Trump administration’s immigration stance will have long-term effects on law schools’ LL.M. programs.
But for those students already admitted, they could run into additional bureaucratic hurdles.
“Where the uncertainty arises is once they get fully into the immigration and visa process,” said Donald Rebstock, an associate dean of strategic initiatives at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law, which each year welcomes about 120 foreign lawyers. “That’s where we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen and what obstacles they may or may not encounter.”
The paperwork for foreign LL.M students entering this country is typically secured over the summer before the school year starts.
A few LL.M applicants at Emory have reported more elaborate visa interviews or delays in securing such interviews, Ahdieh said. None have thus far been denied the student visas required to enter the country for schooling.
“We haven’t seen a huge amount of anecdotal evidence that students are frightened off,” he said. “We work really hard to make sure prospective students are coming to a strong community.”
Some law schools admitted LL.M students earlier than usual to give them more time to obtain visas, while all schools are encouraging them to put down deposits and start the visa process as soon as possible to mitigate potential delays.
An estimated 12,709 foreign students came to study law in 2016, up 8.3 percent from the previous year, according to the Open Doors Report. The American Bar Association puts the number of LL.M students in 2016 at 9,866. That includes some U.S. students, though most are foreign. The discrepancy between the ABA and Open Doors numbers is likely due to Open Doors also counting foreign students in J.D. or undergraduate law programs.
Relatively few LL.M students come from the seven Muslim-majority nations named in Trump’s initial travel ban in January. Countries supplying the most LL.M students are China, Brazil, Japan, France, Italy, India, Canada and Saudi Arabia. The largest LL.M programs typically have 10 or fewer students from the countries named in the ban, and many schools reported again receiving a small number of applications from those places this year.
The Saudi Arabian government is already discussing tightening restrictions to its multibillion-dollar King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which sends hundreds of thousands of Saudi students to colleges and universities abroad annually, noted Byrnes, at Texas A&M.
Although Saudi Arabia was not on Trump’s banned list, curtailing those scholarships would certainly hurt U.S. law schools.
“Anything that’s done at the national level that makes the United States seem less welcoming is not positive for U.S. educational institutions,” said Martin Camp, assistant dean for graduate and international programs at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, which saw LL.M applications increase 20 percent this year. “All of us are very much hoping that the tone from our government will continue to be welcoming to foreigners who want to come here to study.”
For now, schools are doing what they can to counteract any negative perceptions of the United States and reassure LL.M applicants with more robust outreach.
The University of Pennsylvania Law School held 20 overseas events for admitted LL.M students in March—the most ever. The school also paired admits with current LL.M students and alumni, and enlisted faculty to do Skype calls with them to answer their questions, said, the director of graduate programs Elise Kraemer.
“In light of the current climate, we’ve really been working to deal with the issues that might arise,” she said.
USC also stepped up admitted student meetings and overseas recruiting events this year. “We’re trying to assuage concerns, to the degree we can,” said Deborah Call, associate dean of graduate and international programs, noting that prospective LL.M students have more questions and concerns than in previous years. How the school can help with visa processing, and how foreigners are received on USC’s campus are among the frequent questions, Call said.
University of California, Berkeley School of Law’s said LL.M students are asking similar questions, said Erin Weldon, director of admissions for advanced degree programs.
“The LL.M admissions team has noticed more anxiety in general among applicants regarding the visa application process, entry into the U.S., and safety once they arrive, although the number of applicants expressing concern is still very low compared to the overall applicant pool,” she said.
But law schools don’t have a crystal ball into the Trump administration’s next moves, and the litigation over the proposed travel ban is ongoing.
“Students have asked for our opinion of how this is going to affect them,” said Northwestern’s Rebstock. “We can do nothing but be honest with them and let them know there’s uncertainty. So far, there hasn’t been anything that has changed concretely, as far as we’re aware. It’s a moving target right now.”
While some law students are concerned about the unknowns, others are fascinated by the change the new administration has brought.
“Anecdotally, a fair number of students have said, ‘This is such an interesting time to be in the United States. Things are a little crazy,’” said Rosa Brooks, associate dean of graduate programs at Georgetown University Law Center, which saw a 10 percent increase in LL.M applications this year. She speculated that Washington may be a particularly attractive destination to foreign students drawn to the current political landscape.
It is possible that any impact on U.S. LL.M programs would not materialize until the fall of 2018. Most elite law schools had application deadlines in December and early January, before Trump even took office. Plenty of applicants had already made firm plans to complete an LL.M here before Trump signed the travel ban executive order.
“I was always considering the United States as land of countless opportunity, where one could achieve anything based on his hard work, effort and talent, and now this picture is just different,” Orsula said.
Contact Karen Sloan at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ