With More International Students, Can U.S. Retain Top Performers?

Nov 18, 2013

Americans have always taken pride in the fact that the United States is widely viewed as a desirable destination for strivers and dreamers around the world. Which is why it was disconcerting to see a recent Gallup poll revealing that 77% of individuals seeking to move to another country would prefer other nations over the United States.

But the United States remains a top draw for at least one group: foreign students seeking educational opportunities.

That’s the conclusion we can draw from the 2013 Open Doors Report, a statistical survey from the Institute of International Education (IIE) published November 11, 2013. The latest report reveals that the number of international students attending U.S. colleges and universities reached an all-time high of 819,644 in 2013.

The IIE, a nonprofit organization that tracks trends in international education, found that the number of foreign students grew by 7% from last year’s Open Doors Report, marking a seventh consecutive year of growth. The top five nations sending students to the United States are China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada.

The IIE also emphasizes the economic impact of international students in the United States: according to Department of Commerce data, foreign students contribute $24.7 billion per year to the U.S. economy through their tuition payments and living expenses alone.

Many of the best and brightest score a U.S. degree and then promptly return to their home country, or set up shop in a more welcoming nation, to pursue their professional and entrepreneurial dreams.

But that economic impact reverberates much more broadly when we account for the intellectual and research contributions of international scholars. A recent study conducted by three economists—Keith Maskus of the University of Colorado, Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak of Yale University and Eric Stuen of the University of Idaho—examined the contributions of science, engineering and technology Ph.D.’s at 100 U.S. research universities. Their findings, published this month in the journal Science, reveal that the presence of high-performing foreign students boosts innovation and drives entrepreneurial investment and jobs growth.

Yet despite those positive trends, some experts see a rupture in what happens next: While the United States is singularly effective at attracting foreign students, the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system makes it challenging to retain those students after graduation. As a result, many of the best and brightest score a U.S. degree and then promptly return to their home country, or set up shop in a more welcoming nation, to pursue their professional and entrepreneurial dreams.

For example, Shayan Zadeh, an Iranian-born tech entrepreneur and CEO of the web dating service Zoosk, details that dynamic in a November 6 Wall Street Journal op-ed. Zadeh, who enrolled in the doctoral program at the University of Maryland on a student visa, warns that the system is driving many top performers to pursue their entrepreneurial goals in other countries.

“My story has a happy ending: I finally became a U.S. citizen in April,” Zadeh writes. “But it also shows how easy it is to lose skilled talent to other countries. I chose to stay and put up with the restrictions because there is nowhere better to build a tech company. But many young, educated and ambitious friends of mine decided it was too difficult here, especially when countries like Canada and United Kingdom welcomed their expertise. It's not a surprise that Microsoft and Google have set up offices in Vancouver to work around U.S. visa quotas.”

Maskus, the co-author of the immigrant Ph.D. study, points out that Canada, Australia and nations in Western Europe are more aggressive at granting permanent residency status to high-performing immigrant students after they’ve completed their degrees. By contrast, in the United States these students must sign on with a U.S. employer, who can then help them secure a work visa.

“That does have the effect, we’re convinced, of pushing too many of these innovative people back outside the borders of the United States,” Maskus explains in an interview with Voice of America. “So we argue for increasing the number of those visas and focusing on these [students]—or even better, just offering a very quick and straightforward process to permanent residence.”

Beyond the implications for innovation and economic growth, the growth of the foreign-student population also brings cultural and diplomatic benefits, according to IIE CEO Allan E. Goodman, who lauded the findings of the 2013 Open Doors Report as a win-win for both international students and Americans.

“The careers of all of our students will be global ones, in which they will need to function effectively in multi-national teams. They will need to understand the cultural differences and historical experiences that divide us, as well as the common values and humanity that unite us,” Goodman said in a news release. “International students coming to study in the U.S. benefit from access to some of the finest professors and research laboratories in the world, and Americans benefit substantially from the presence of international students who bring their own unique perspectives and knowledge to the classroom and the wider community.”

The 2013 Open Doors Report underscores the importance of retaining the “best and brightest” foreign students in the United States. After all, why train and educate these young professionals only to drive them to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams and create jobs in another country?  It’s another compelling example of the need for Washington to enact comprehensive immigration reform.



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