Foreign Students in the United States
A DISCUSSION OFHow Higher Education Became an Important US Export
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In “How Higher Education Became an Important US Export” (Issues, Fall 2021), Gaurav Khanna describes the contribution that international students have made to the finances of US universities in recent years as domestic sources of support have dried up. He makes a good case that this revenue stream has helped many universities, especially public institutions, survive in a difficult fiscal environment. Citing data from Michigan State University as an example, he also notes the contribution that foreign students make to the economies of their universities’ communities—an astonishing $90 million in 2007 in the case of MSU.
While the economic impact of international students is undoubtedly significant, however, it’s only part of the story. We should not lose sight of the even more important contribution that international students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—especially graduate students—have made to the US economy and to the strength of the nation’s science and technology enterprise. For many of those students, a STEM degree from a US university is a ticket to a career in the United States. And the part these immigrants have played in the growth of US science and the US tech sector should not be underestimated.
More than half of major US high tech firms, for instance, were founded or are headed by immigrants or children of immigrants. This company roster includes Apple, Amazon, Google, Intel, Tesla, and Yahoo. A third of recent American Nobel laureates were either foreign-born US citizens or noncitizens working in US laboratories. The labs of many top US universities would be much smaller and less productive without foreign-born faculty members, graduate assistants, and postdoctoral fellows. Less than 40% of the approximately 4,000 postdocs at the National Institutes of Health are US citizens or permanent residents. Others come from China, India, Korea, Japan, and many nations in Europe. For many Israeli PhDs a postdoctoral appointment in the United States is practically mandatory.
In view of the value that the United States derives from this “gift of global talent,” as William Kerr calls it in the title of his book about the impact of immigration on US science and technology, it is difficult to understand why the federal government seems determined to create roadblocks in the path of highly skilled immigrants rather than welcoming them with open arms. While the governments of many nations, including Canada, China, France, and Korea, have implemented programs to attract scientists and students from abroad, the United States has been counting on its reputation and the recruitment efforts of individual colleges and universities to maintain its position at the top of the STEM world. This may no longer be enough.
The US visa system is a maze of complex and obsolete requirements that badly needs revision. For example, although many foreign students hope to remain in the United States, one of the long-standing requirements for obtaining a student visa is demonstrating the intent to return home after completing the educational program. More recently, the pandemic has severely limited international travel and led to a sharp (hopefully temporary) drop in foreign student enrollment in US universities. The Trump administration’s hostility to immigration at all levels and its ban on immigration from several predominantly Islamic countries and limits on Chinese students from a number of universities exacerbated these problems. While President Biden has begun to dismantle the Trump-era policies, his administration faces a daunting task in overcoming their legacy of distrust.
Albert H. Teich
Research Professor of Science, Technology & International Affairs
Institute for International Science & Technology Policy
George Washington University
The total number of foreign students enrolled in US universities more than tripled between 1980 and 2017, rising from 305,000 to over 1 million. Gaurav Khanna discusses three main benefits that these international students provide the US economy. First, they bring tuition revenue during a period when states schools are financially struggling. Second, they boost the economy within surrounding college towns. Third, many international students stay in the United States after graduation and provide contributions to the expansion of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics labor force.
While these benefits are important, other factors need to be accounted for in order to have a complete perspective of how international students affect the US economy. First, they might crowd out US students in American universities. There is evidence that actually shows that foreign classmates displace domestic students from STEM majors and occupations. Second, foreign students who stay in the United States after graduation might compete with American workers for the same jobs. Past research has shown that the wages of US computer scientists would be higher had firms not been able to hire foreign workers. Finally, many international graduates return to their home country bringing back scientific knowledge obtained from an American education. This “exported” knowledge can be used to make foreign companies and universities more competitive. While the dissemination of scientific knowledge across the globe is beneficial for technological progress, it might be harmful to America’s leadership in science and technology.
Overall, there are both costs and benefits to the US economy associated with an increase in international enrollment in American universities. It is also important to acknowledge that some players in the US economy gain from the increase of foreign students, but some players might also lose. I hope future research can fully characterize the changes in welfare associated with the expansion of international students in the United States in the past decades.
Principal Research Associate