from Renewing America

Foreign Student Numbers Growing: The Good News and the Missed Opportunities

A student walks along Boston University's campus in Boston, Massachusetts (Jessica Rinaldi/Courtesy Reuters).

November 12, 2013

A student walks along Boston University's campus in Boston, Massachusetts (Jessica Rinaldi/Courtesy Reuters).
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While it is easy to despair at the many failings of the U.S. political process, it is important sometimes to celebrate the amazing resilience of American society. My cause today is the latest annual Open Doors report from the Institute of International Education, which examines foreign students studying at American universities and U.S. students studying abroad. The encouraging news is that last year nearly 820,000 international students attended U.S. colleges and universities, a record high and an increase of 7 percent over the previous year. New enrollments were up 10 per cent. That’s nearly a million smart young people who will either remain in the United States after they graduate and strengthen this country, or return home and bring with them the values and skills they learned at some of the world’s greatest schools.

U.S. universities are a magnet for talent. In the most recent ranking by Times Higher Education, 15 of the world’s top 20 universities are in the United States. The U.S. government did its best for several years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks to drive those students away by making the process for obtaining a student visa far more difficult, and the number of foreign students did not grow between 2001 and 2006. Other countries like Canada and Australia took advantage by expanding their programs for foreign students. But the State Department has ironed out most of the problems in the student visa process, giving priority to assuring that student applications are considered in a timely fashion. And the number of foreign students in the United States is again growing at record rates (though to keep the numbers in context, less than 4 percent of all higher education students in the United States are international students).

The benefits to this country are extraordinary. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell put it, foreign students “return home with an increased understanding and often a lasting affection for the United States. I can think of no more valuable asset to our country than the friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here.” Foreign students earn 40 percent of the science and engineering PhD's and 65 percent of computer science doctorates in the United States, and those who remain make very important contributions to the U.S. economy.

So the news that foreign student numbers are again growing steadily is a cause for celebration. What is not is how difficult we continue to make it for them to remain here and build careers if they wish. Our outdated immigration rules block foreign students at every turn. When they first apply for the visa, a student must persuade the U.S. government that he or she has no intention of remaining in the United States. If they later change their mind, there are strict quotas on the number of foreign students who can stay on temporary visas. And for the truly determined, they can face waits of many years to move from a temporary visa that restricts work opportunities to a permanent resident green card and eventually citizenship.

The comprehensive immigration reform bill passed by the Senate and now languishing in the House deals with all these issues. It would allow students to declare “dual-intent” when they apply for a visa (ie. the student might return to his country, but he might also choose to stay in the United States after graduating). It would increase the number of temporary work visas based on the strength of the economy, would make those visas less tied to a single employer, and would permit the spouses of visa holders to work in the United States. It would lift per country limits on green cards that produce waits of as much as 10 years for would-be immigrants from big countries like China and India. And it would offer a new fast track to green card status for foreign students who earn advanced degrees in the STEM fields.

All of these provisions enjoy strong support from both Democrats and Republicans. If made into law, they would multiply the potential gains to the United States from foreign students. But -- to return to the despair bit -- the Congress remains unable to get past the politics. The Senate bill has gone nowhere in the House, and the House’s promised alternative (piecemeal reform) appears to be a campaign talking point rather than a genuine strategy.

Happily, international students are ignoring the nation’s capital and flocking here regardless. That is encouraging news, but we could do so much better if Washington would start working for the country rather than against it.

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