America — We're Losing Our Minds

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Give me your tired. Give me your poor. Give me your huddled masses yearning for a dual major at a mid-level American research university.

In spite of prevailing concerns that our colleges have gotten too expensive, that the results aren't what they used to be, that post-grad job prospects are not as bright as they once were, the promise of an American education remains a draw to students from all over the world.This, according to new data from the Institute of International Education, which says that American colleges have collectively seen a 10% rise in international enrollment in just the last year.

The Open Doors Report On International Educational Exchange calls 2015 the single biggest leap in international enrollment in 35 years. American universities added 974,926 students to their rosters during this time. Over the course of the last decade, that increase has been on the order of 73%.

Sure, American colleges are getting costlier. But campuses are also growing more diverse. If these patterns seem counterintuitive, they are, in fact, closely correlated. Indeed, each trend can be attributed at least in some part to the growing reluctance of states to fund their own public colleges and universities.

Marketing to Students in a Global Era

With fairly substantial cuts in state funding pretty much across the boards, universities must be increasingly creative when it comes to making up the difference. For many, the answer to this quandary is internationalization. The Chronicle of Higher Education points to research institutions such as Northeastern, Arizona State, and New York University as having seen some of the highest percentages of international growth. For each of these campuses, the upswing has been the consequence of concerted marketing and recruitment tactics aimed at producing a more international campus community.

And with foreign students often paying as much as three times the tuition paid by in-state enrollees, it's fair to suggest that the strategy is not merely aimed at enhancing cultural diversity. There is a business imperative that makes pretty good sense. To wit, those campuses which have tended toward a more isolationist approach have experienced some less-than-desirable outcomes.

If there are winners and losers in this immigration wave, some of the losers may be self-selected. For instance, the University of Texas at Austin was subject to a 2011 law requiring that 90% of any incoming freshman class originate from in-state. The law has effectively stifled growth in international enrollment and diminished the school's market share in one of higher education's fastest growing recruitment sectors.

At a time when universities have experienced booms in this category on the whole, Texas saw its share of international students decline from 9.6 for every 1000 students to 6.1.

This contrasts the great many universities that have come to see the influx of foreign students as a life raft. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, two-thirds of institutions with the highest rate of international growth are public colleges. Generally speaking though, colleges that have effectively painted themselves as global campuses are seeing a flood of enthusiastic applicants from throughout the world. (Tune in for our forthcoming feature on how colleges are marketing and rebranding themselves to compete in the age of consumerism).

America or Bust

It is worth considering that immigration trends may vary dramatically and will hinge on any number of geopolitical realities upon which universities have absolutely no control. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, a full 60% of foreign student growth at American Universities in 2013-2014 can trace its origins to China.

This is, in fact, the largest proportion of foreign students ever derived from a single nation of origin. The singularity of this source has invited speculation that some universities are in the midst of an enrollment boom which is destined for a bust.Indeed, for universities that have largely staked their growth on an influx of specific immigration populations, there are limitations to how sustainable such strategies will be over time.

India provides a useful case study on how these patterns can fluctuate. Before Chinese arrivals altered the pattern, it was India that sent the largest proportion of foreign students to the U.S. However, says The Chronicle of Higher Education, as India endured recession and watched its currency slide in value, it also saw a decline in the number of students dispatched to study abroad.

Then, just as the rupee enjoyed recovery this year, so too was there a rebound in the growth of America's Indian student population. After three years of decline, enrollment shot up by 6% this year.

This is only to suggest that universities who are staking any degree of their revenue stream on the influx of foreign students must do so with full understanding of the shifts that might yet be on the horizon. Today's boom is tomorrow's bust.

The Brain Drain

Diversity

Putting aside these ever-shifting tides, the current trends in foreign enrollment are positive from the perspective that they genuinely improve diversity in America's universities. The increasingly multicultural climate on many of America's best public campuses should serve as a microcosm of our evermore connected global economy. Students, both international and domestic, will be rewarded with the opportunity for more fluid and dynamic intercultural exchange, personal enrichment, political discourse, and ideological growth.

STEM

But there is a tradeoff and it is one with some portentous implications for our future job economy. A recent study by the Pew Research Center finds that more than half of the advanced degrees issued in STEM fields by American colleges and universities are awarded to foreign students.

Foreign students account for a 56.9% of doctoral degrees in engineering and 52.5% in computer and information sciences. This would be all well in good if these students were likely to become permanent citizens of the United States. But the reality is that our discouraging immigration policies—not to mention the sense among some foreign students that America is not all it's cracked up to be—are rendering higher education little more than a high-priced American export.

Soft Diplomacy versus Job Markets

According to a study conducted among foreign students at Harvard University, very few respondents expressed a desire to remain in the U.S. permanently. A mere 15% of European students, 10% of Chinese students, and 6% of Indian students said that they would make their home in the U.S. Based on a combination of challenging immigration laws and disappointing quality-of-life issues, many foreign students have opted—or ultimately will opt—to take their skills back home in pursuit of opportunity.

In the sense that this trend may be helping to extend what experts call “soft-diplomacy”—basically the spreading of positive vibes though good ol' fashioned American education—there is some value in the global dispersion of college opportunity. However, future employers struggling to fill labor gaps in the science, technology, and engineering fields will be pretty underwhelmed by this benefit. For those that might worry about the displacement of American jobs as a consequence of immigration, these fears are not only groundless, but they are pretty much the opposite of reality.

We are sending degree-holding graduates back home with all the skills, talent, and knowledge that we so desperately need right here in the U.S.

According to a Georgetown University study, the gap between STEM jobs and the qualified graduates needed to fill them is projected to reach 230,000 by 2018.

That's more than just a labor shortfall. It is a genuine threat to America's future relevance as an innovator, a technological leader, and a scientific powerhouse. There is some evidence to suggest that other countries understand this fact and are more than happy to exploit it.

The growth rate of foreign students has been especially high from countries whose governments sponsor scholarship programs for students learning abroad. Among such nations, Saudi Arabia has seen a 21% hike in the last decade. Brazil sent 22% more students to the U.S. over that time and Kuwait's number jumped by a considerable 43%.

Generous though these scholarship programs may be, there is one catch. Recipients are required to return to their countries of origin with the education absorbed abroad. All of the knowledge, experience, and excellence derived from an American education will be to the benefit of employers in Saudi Arabia, Brazil, or Kuwait.

The difficulty of obtaining a work visa in the U.S. is a major contributor to this pattern. There is a program called Optional Practical Training, which opens a pathway for foreign graduates to remain in the U.S. for up to 29 months versus the previous limit of 12. The result is a somewhat greater latitude for the acquisition of a work visa. But in more cases than not, this merely allows for the greater acquisition of practical skills and experience to be applied upon one's return home.

All of this would be acceptable if our locally grown students were up to the various challenges that will be presented to the educated professionals of the not-too-distant future.

Unfortunately, evidence seems to suggest that we really could use some help from our foreign-born friends. The enthusiasm that students from Asia, India, and the Middle East have shown for America's STEM programs far exceeds what we feel here, no matter how hard we use standardized testing to drive it into our students.

Stick Around

America is a nation of immigrants. Many of our best ideas, our greatest enterprises, and our brightest stars have come here from other nations, have been the contributions of foreign born talents that we have proudly claimed as our own. Today, we must make a stronger claim on the students arriving here in record numbers. We need to show them that we want them here, that they belong here, and that we need them to stick around.

From our obfuscating immigration bureaucracy to America's remarkably ingrained xenophobia, the path to permanent status is rocky even for the lavishly educated. For many, graduation is just a harsh red stamp away from deportation.

For everything that we do to court foreign students here, we do little to keep them. This is to our own detriment. Today, we are in the thick of an historically robust student influx. If we are to make the most of the education being delivered at America's universities, it should be a top priority to help our foreign born students become permanent citizens and contributors.

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