As Congress attempts to stave off Chinese competition in computer chip manufacturing, investing billions to subsidize its domestic semiconductor industry will miss the mark if the U.S. does not do more to attract and retain international students.
The so-called CHIPS-Plus legislation leaves untouched the very real barriers to recruiting the human capital needed to fuel the U.S. semiconductor industry, and all STEM fields for that matter.
The battle for dominance in high-tech research begins in the classroom and right now China is outcompeting the U.S. in this arena. China produces four times as many bachelor’s students and two times as many graduate and Ph.D. students in STEM than the United States each year.
To succeed in the high-tech arms race, we must both increase U.S. homegrown talent and attract the world’s best and brightest talent to our higher education institutions. Our antiquated immigration system coupled with onerous requirements to study or work here works against our efforts to excel at the latter.
The U.S. currently draws about a million international students to this country every year, but the hurdles they must face to even set foot on a U.S. campus are significant. The ones blocking their ability to stay after graduation to work, conduct research, or start a business are even greater.
It is in the U.S.’ best interest to resolve these issues. International students on U.S. campuses have, for generations, advanced U.S. foreign policy, diplomacy, and homeland security goals while also enriching the worldview of their domestic classmates and making important contributions to the local community and economy—to the tune of almost $25 billion during the 2020-2021 school year. Since 2000, more than half of all U.S. unicorns—start-ups valued at $1 billion or more—have been founded or co-founded by immigrants. Consider that the co-founder of Moderna, Noubar Afeyan, began his career as an international student in the United States. Further, research indicates that an additional 100,000 international student graduates of U.S. colleges and universities each year would like to stay and work permanently in the U.S. They could add up to $233 billion to the U.S. economy this decade and reduce STEM-related talent shortages by about a quarter.
Meanwhile, our competitor countries, namely the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, are forging ahead with welcoming policies to recruit and retain the world’s global talent. The U.K., for example, reached its goal of hosting 600,000 international students by the year 2030 a full decade early by creating more post-study work opportunities and ensuring immigration policies are welcoming to global research talent. Similarly, Canada surpassed its milestone of attracting 450,000 international students three years early by adopting expedited visa processing for certain qualifying students, offering post-study work visas that can last up to three years, and making it easier for international students to immigrate.
The U.S., in contrast, does not have a national, coordinated government strategy for international education. The total number of new international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities is on a downward trend, while the other countries named above are experiencing double-digit growth in international student enrollment. It is estimated that the U.S. share of the international student market has dropped by eight percent since 2001.
The cost of inaction is high. As the departments of State and Education affirmed in a Joint Statement of Principles in Support of International Education issued one year ago, “this competition represents a direct challenge to U.S. leadership in research and innovation, our ability to tackle common global concerns, and our capacity to effectively champion universal values, such as human rights, the rule of law, and equity and tolerance, on a global stage.”
We couldn’t agree more.
With the efforts to pass a comprehensive U.S. competitiveness and innovation legislative package falling short, the time is now for the United States government to leverage the vast potential of international education to fully assert its global competitiveness.
The U.S. should adopt a national strategy for international education that establishes targets, policies, and funds programs to increase the number and diversity of international students at U.S. higher education institutions; increase the number and diversity of American students participating in study abroad programs; and promote efforts to internationalize U.S. campuses. Because international education policy falls under the jurisdiction of more than one federal agency, a coordinating body should be established within the White House that would ensure collaboration and compromise within and across key federal agencies.
Second, U.S. visa and immigration law and policy must be updated and modified to provide the predictability that is essential to attracting and retaining international students. This includes allowing international student visa applicants to express interest in remaining in the United States after graduation, updating immigration law to permit smoother access to work opportunities for skilled post-graduates from STEM fields and non-STEM fields alike, and improving the visa application process.
These and other key adjustments could make the difference between the U.S. workforce being left behind, or leading the pack.
Esther D. Brimmer, DPhil, executive director and CEO NAFSA: Association of International Educators.