National Academies Panel Examines International Student Issues

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Publication date: 
22 August 2005

"The inadequacy of data on international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars limits our understanding of the composition of the S&E workforce and of how that workforce might respond to economic or political changes.... Congress and administrative agencies need better data and more analysis to craft better policies." - Committee on Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States

Should U.S. policies seek to attract outstanding science and engineering (S&E) students and postdoctoral scholars from around the world to study and work here? How do foreign students affect the number of U.S. citizens who choose to pursue S&E careers? Are U.S. visa, immigration and university policies regarding foreign students and scholars appropriate? A National Academies panel tasked with examining these questions encountered a "lack of accurate and timely data" about foreign students and scholars, the national security risks they present compared to domestic students, and what factors influence their decisions to come to the U.S. However, the committee notes that "decision-making does not come to a halt in the absence of adequate data." In May, it presented a series of recommendations to help bring clarification and greater consistency to current U.S. policies.

The committee's report notes that foreign-born and foreign-educated scientists and engineers,"at least in the recent past, have made a disproportionate number of ‘exceptional' contributions to the S&E enterprise of the United States." Foreign-born scientists and engineers grew from 12.7 percent of the U.S. S&E labor force in 1980 to 22.7 percent of that labor force in 2000, the report says. However, the committee found no indication that temporary residents are displacing U.S. citizens from graduate programs. It also found that temporary residents working as postdocs worked longer hours and earned less than U.S. citizens in similar positions. The committee's recommendations are summarized below:

Recommendation 1-1: To "maintain or enhance its current quality and effectiveness in S&E," the U.S. should seek "to attract the best graduate students and postdoctoral scholars regardless of national origin" and "should make every effort to encourage domestic-student interest in S&E programs and careers."

Recommendation 1-2: "The overarching goal for universities and other research institutions should be to provide the highest-quality training and career development to both domestic and international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars of truly outstanding potential." The highest priority for graduate admissions should be "the education of the next generation of researchers." Admissions decisions should take into account "career and employment opportunities," and "data concerning employment outcomes should be readily available to both students and faculty."

Recommendation 2-1: In addition to offering fellowships and assistantships, universities "that have large international student and scholar populations should conduct surveys to evaluate existing services provided by the institutions" and "should offer orientation days for international students, train teaching assistants, update Web services, and provide professional development training for administrators staffing international student and scholar offices."

Recommendation 2-2: "A high priority should be placed on collecting and disseminating data on the demographics, working conditions, and career outcomes of scholars who earned their doctoral degrees outside the United States. When combined with current data collected by [NSF] and professional societies, this should make possible a more complete picture of the U.S. S&E workforce. Funds should be allocated for this purpose by Congress to the NSF or by nonprofit foundations to other organizations."

Recommendation 3-1: "So that students can make informed decisions about advanced training in S&E, career outcomes of recent graduates should be communicated to prospective students by university departments and faculty advisers.... Universities should develop graduate education and postdoctoral programs that prepare S&E students and scholars for the diversity of jobs they will encounter.... The committee encourages discussion among universities, industry, and funding agencies to explore how to expand graduate fellowships and encourage women and members of underrepresented minorities to consider education and training in S&E."

Recommendation 4-1: "The United States needs a new system of data collection to track student and postdoctoral flows.... Funds should be provided to the NSF or other institutions to collaborate internationally to create a data system similar to a balance-of-trade account to track degree production, student and postdoctoral movement between countries, push-pull factors affecting student choice at all degree levels, and employment outcomes."

Recommendation 4-2: To maintain U.S. leadership in S&E, "visa and immigration policies should provide clear procedures that do not unnecessarily hinder the flow of international graduate students and postdoctoral scholars." The committee recommends extending the duration of Visas Mantis clearances for students and scholars from all countries; ensuring that foreign students and scholars can attend scientific meetings outside the U.S. without serious delays in reentering; involving scientifically trained personnel in the security-review process; enabling regular, independent review of the Technology Alert List by scientists and engineers; giving high priority to multiple-entry and multiple-year student visas in reciprocity negotiations; and improving "change of status" procedures. The committee also calls for the creation of new nonimmigrant-visa categories "for doctoral-level graduate students and postdoctoral scholars, whether they are coming to the United States for formal educational or training programs or for short-term research collaborations or scientific meetings. The categories should be exempted from the 214b provision whereby applicants must show that they have a residence in a foreign country that they have no intention of abandoning. In addition to providing a better track student and scholar visa applicants, the categories would provide a means for collecting clear data on numbers and trends of graduate-student and postdoctoral-scholar visa applications."

To "draft effective policies," the report says, "the federal agencies require a better understanding of the impact of foreign-born scientists and engineers on U.S. research and education, economic competitiveness, national security, foreign policy, and international relations. The most reasonable approach is likely to be evolutionary, as policymakers in government, academe, and industry grapple more directly with the questions and findings of the many sources cited in this report." A prepublication version of the report, "Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States," can be read online at

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