Foreign Students: A Prize Worth Fighting for

In a time of sluggish growth and economic uncertainty, the last thing people want is more competition for education and employment.  However, some prominent economists are asserting that this is exactly what America needs.  According to Gad Levanon—director of macroeconomic research at a prestigious business research group called the Conference Board—America is staring straight at several decades of labor shortages, particularly in skilled positions.  The root cause of this looming shortage is the rapidly approaching retirement of baby boomers, who are now between the ages of 52 and 70.  Policy specialist Daniel Marschall, a professor at George Washington University who studies workforce development, reports that the well-educated baby-boomers are leaving the workforce “and taking their skills and knowledge with them.” (CNBC)  So even as many still struggle against unemployment, there appears to be a rising scarcity of highly-skilled job applicants to fill many vacant posts.

One obvious solution to this growing problem is to increase the volume of foreign students studying in the United States because many students are likely to stay in the United States and work after graduating.  In addition to bolstering the American workforce, attracting foreign talent brings a slew of other benefits to host countries.

First of all, foreign students actually help pay for local students’ education by paying much higher rates—at least at public institutions.  What's more, these students typically flock to STEM majors, a boon to these programs by increasing demand.  This, in turn, can result in scientific research gains.  Another benefit not to be undervalued is that even when foreign students return to their home countries, they serve as informal “ambassadors” of the United States.  In a time of increasing international tension and an unfavorable image of the United States being projected abroad, this is a boon for the American people.

However, to the chagrin of many academics, the United States is letting a golden opportunity—the education of international students—slip away.  Although America has the largest absolute number of foreign students, at 975,000, this past school year, in fractional terms, the United States lags far behind its other Anglophone competitors with only 5% of all students hailing from abroad.  The United States is extraordinarily attractive to foreign students because of its prestigious universities, its status as the world’s largest economy, and the teaching of English in schools.  However, the United States is squandering these natural advantages primarily because of strict visa requirements. (The Economist)

Following the attacks of September 2001, the United States has enforced strict visa requirements.  One result of this policy has been that it makes it much harder for foreign students to gain the legal opportunity to study in America.  Another problem is that foreign students require special permission to work off-campus and often have difficulty staying and working in the United States following graduation.

Because of these restrictions, many foreigners are seeking their education elsewhere.  America’s main competitors are other English-speaking countries, particularly Australia, the United Kingdom, and Canada.  Although these nations have had some difficulties maintaining steady flows of international students, they have been doing a much better job than the United States lately. Canada, in particular, has really stepped up its game.  With that success in mind, around ten years ago Canada focused its energies on attracting foreigners in order to augment their university finances and attract well-qualified workers.  Canada eased immigration rules and made it easy for students to transition from studying abroad to working abroad and then to gain permanent Canadian residency.  This strategy has been incredibly successful, and the number of Chinese and Indian students has soared.

Another rising competitor to the United States’ education export industry is the rise of increasingly prosperous Asian hubs like Singapore and Malaysia.  The decision to study in local hubs such as these is becoming an increasingly popular option.  So too is online education, as technology advances in developing countries.

Americans need to take swift action to increase the trickle of foreign students currently crossing the American border.  Policy makers must prioritize attracting international students to American universities in order to reap the benefits that these foreigners bring to our economy and to staunch our impending skills shortage.  Americans should keep in mind the 2016 presidential candidates’ proposed policies on immigration and education as they consider whom to back this fall.