International Student Access to the U.S. and Policy Implications

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Publication date: 
18 August 2004

A National Academies panel spent a day and a half last month exploring issues related to the presence of foreign graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the U.S. Should the government be encouraging or discouraging international graduate students from studying science and engineering in this country? How have visa policies in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks affected foreign students wanting to study in the U.S.? Is it desirable for such students to remain here as workers after receiving their education, or is it preferable for them to return to their countries of origin? What are the relative benefits to the U.S. of each course of action, and how can such benefits be quantified? The Committee on Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States heard varied answers to these questions as it was briefed by more than 20 speakers at its first meeting on July 19-20.

It became clear at the meeting that more information is needed on international students in science and engineering (S&E) fields, and much of the available data is not current enough to give a complete picture of what has happened since 9/11. According to Peggy Blumenthal of the Institute of International Education, international graduate students make up about 13 percent of the total graduate student body, and up to about 50 percent in some science and technology fields. She stated that a fall 2003 "snapshot" survey of enrollment trends showed some institutions reporting declines in the total foreign student population while others reported increases. An "InfoBrief" from NSF's Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS) reported that first-time graduate enrollment among foreign students in S&E fields experienced a downturn between 2001 and 2002 (this InfoBrief will be highlighted in a future FYI). Patrick Mulvey of the American Institute of Physics cited a survey of U.S. physics graduate programs that found the population of foreign students entering graduate physics programs "declined noticeably" for the 2001-2 and 2002-3 academic years, and about 20 percent of foreign students accepted to graduate physics programs did not arrive in time for the start of the 2002 academic year (this report can be found at ).

David Payne of the Educational Testing Service, which produces the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) exams, described evidence that in the last few years, Chinese and Indian students are sending fewer TOEFL results to the U.S., and more to countries such as Canada and England. "The bottom line," he said, is that "we are seeing students that previously would have come to the U.S. now going to other countries." Victor Johnson of the NAFSA: Association of International Educators voiced concern that U.S. "leadership could suffer" if it loses "its attractiveness as a destination of choice" for foreign students. Mark Regets of NSF's SRS remarked that the U.S. was becoming "less dominant than it has been in the world as a producer of doctoral degrees."

There was substantial discussion about the impact of foreign students and workers on the U.S. economy, the R&D system, and on U.S.-born students and workers. Blumenthal cited an estimate that international students as a whole bring approximately $12.9 billion into the U.S. economy each year through tuition, room and board, and other expenses - a number that committee member Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation claimed was "close to meaningless." Another speaker commented that the economic impact of those students who remain after graduation to work in the U.S. probably dwarfs that number by one or more orders of magnitude. The National Postdoctoral Association's Carol Manahan said that if the U.S. wanted to encourage foreign natives to stay and work in this country, it should reexamine the requirement that student visa applicants must demonstrate an intent to return home after graduation.

Devesh Kapur of Harvard University discussed the impact on poor countries of students who leave to study and work in the U.S. In particular, he said, those who leave are often those who would be most likely to contribute to their home countries' public institutions in areas such as health, agriculture and education. Several speakers emphasized the value to the U.S. of having foreign students trained here, and then transporting U.S. culture and attitudes back to their home countries and becoming a source for multinational collaborations and partnerships. Concerns were expressed that continued U.S. reliance on foreign S&E students and workers was preventing reforms that might attract more Americans to those fields, but Regets said that SRS data does not indicate that foreign-born graduate students are displacing U.S. natives in S&E fields. A number of participants noted that attempts to encourage more U.S. citizens to S&E fields need to address stipend and wage levels, the amount of time for training, and reexamination of the way science and math are taught in this country.

It was generally agreed that trying to predict the S&E labor market for the next 5-10 years was impossible. Committee member John Armstrong, formerly of IBM, remarked that it was "incumbent" on the committee to determine how to develop its recommendations "in ignorance." William Pulleyblank of IBM Corporation urged the committee to recommend policies that were "nimble and responsive." The committee plans to meet several more times and release a report sometime next spring.

On July 21, a related bill (S. 2715) was introduced by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) "to improve access to graduate schools in the United States for international students and scholars." The bill finds that "openness to international students and exchange visitors serves longstanding and important United States foreign policy, educational, and economic interests," and that "the erosion of such exchanges is contrary to United States national security interests." It would require the President, in consultation with interested parties, to develop a marketing plan to "promote and facilitate" international student study in the U.S., and to outline clear divisions of responsibility for foreign students between, and mechanisms for coordination among, the Departments of State, Commerce, Education and Homeland Security. It calls for streamlining and standards of timeliness in the review of visa applications, the interoperability of relevant federal systems and databases, and reform of the SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) fee process. In reference to students studying S&T fields, the bill states that the Secretary of State, after consultation with the OSTP Director and representatives of the U.S. scientific community, "shall issue appropriate guidance to consular officers in order to refine controls on the entry of visitors who propose to engage in study or research in advanced science or technology in order to ensure that only cases of concern, and not nonsensitive cases, are subjected to special review."

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