The Foreign Student Dilemma

Research & Technology

JOHN A. ARMSTRONG

The Foreign Student Dilemma

When the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, many people in the United States were talking about a “new rationale” for federal support of university research in the physical sciences and engineering. The essence of the new rationale was the importance of such research to continued productivity growth in the civilian economy. The discussion took place in the wake of widespread concern about U.S. industrial competitiveness, especially with respect to Japanese high-technology firms.

The discussion also took place, however, at a time when it was becoming clear that innovation was alive and well. The Internet, the World Wide Web, broadband data communication, and commercially viable biotechnologies were beginning to have major impacts. In addition, sometimes painful restructuring was beginning to restore the competitiveness of U.S. companies, while at the same time it was becoming evident that the apparent superiority of Japanese industrial practice had been constructed on top of unsustainable financial policies and practices.

Since the early 1990s, the overall U.S. research enterprise in the physical sciences has changed significantly. Large parts of the industrial research establishment have been reduced in size and redirected in focus, and the academic research community has seen substantial changes in the overall balance of federal support among scientific and engineering subfields.

There is thus ample reason to discuss matters of common concern to university and industrial research leaders. Among the issues that deserve attention is the continued participation of large numbers of foreign students in the scientific, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments of U.S. graduate schools, as well as their subsequent participation in the nation’s workforce. This issue is likely to have profound long-term implications for the U.S. research enterprise and its ability to contribute to the nation’s economic health.

It has been known and commented on for decades that a very large proportion of STEM graduate students at U.S. universities–considerably more than 50 percent in many subfields–come from overseas. This has long constituted a comparative advantage for the United States, because so many of these high-caliber students have remained here after graduation and made major contributions. The size of the STEM graduate faculties and programs of many research universities would be unsustainable if this demand for overseas workers dried up. All U.S. high-tech research, development, and manufacturing firms have, for decades, relied on these foreign-born, U.S.-trained graduates for a substantial fraction of their workforce.

Despite decades of worry by some observers about U.S. dependence on foreign STEM workers, and despite substantial efforts to reduce that dependence, the United States has been unsuccessful in motivating and preparing a sufficient number of its own young scientists and engineers to meet the needs of its high-tech economy. (It is no comfort that the world’s other large industrialized nations appear to be having the same problem.)

The events of September 11, 2001, showed that a tiny fraction of foreign “students” had abused the U.S. system and exploited it to do this country harm. There can be no doubt that the United States needs to become much more careful about admitting and keeping track of foreign students, as well as other immigrants. And there is no doubt that it will be a major bureaucratic undertaking to do so, with attendant delays in the approval of visa applications and the discouraging effects of closer monitoring of students who are here. A significant percentage of potential STEM graduate students may well decide that they no longer wish to study in the United States.

There already has been a substantial decline in foreign STEM graduate student enrollment. The number of international students entering graduate physics programs dropped by about 15 percent in the past two years, according to a spring 2003 report by the American Institute of Physics. According to the report, “physics department chairs report that about 20 percent of the international students who were admitted into graduate physics programs were unable to start this last September because of visa problems.” Although data are not yet available in other STEM subfields, there is no reason to believe that physics is atypical. A marked decline in the population of foreign STEM graduate students may not be inevitable, but it appears highly likely.

In the short term, this decline will certainly affect graduate programs, and it may or may not have negative effects on industrial research, because private-sector demand for STEM workers is notoriously variable and hard to forecast. But in the long term, such a steep decline will have profoundly negative implications for the effectiveness of the entire U.S. research enterprise.

Balancing act

The only prudent policy-planning assumption must be that it will be impossible to offset this decline of foreign STEM students with our own young people. This is not meant to suggest that efforts to attract more U.S. citizens to STEM fields, including women and underrepresented minorities, should be relaxed. Rather, it reflects the modest success achieved to date and the lack of understanding of the problem’s root causes.

Policymakers should therefore place a high priority on mitigating the negative effects of the increased care and scrutiny with which foreign students will henceforth be admitted to the United States. Without adequate policies, an inadequate STEM workforce will eventually diminish U.S. capacity to increase productivity: the bedrock of continued improvements in living standards and national wealth.

Paradoxically, the absence of large numbers of foreign-born STEM workers may have an impact on the nation’s economic health that is comparable to, although not commensurate with, the presence of a tiny number of foreign-born “student” terrorists. Fortunately, it will not be necessary to make an extreme either-or choice here. But striking the right balance and encouraging the one group while rooting out the other is a matter of vital importance to research universities, industry, and indeed the entire nation.

It will be a crucial task for policymakers and university administrators over the coming five years or so to make sure that the best possible balance is struck between, on the one hand, the inevitable increase in monitoring and scrutiny of foreign students, and, on the other, the most imaginative and effective support for these students in their academic communities.


John A. Armstrong () is a former vice president for science and technology at IBM.