Dan Collier (REPOST from the Forum on the Future of Public Education- Dec, 2014)

In my previous blog, I argued that since the Great Recession there had been a strong relationship between the declines of state appropriations operations revenue and undergraduate international student enrollment within public research universities within the Big Ten. I also argued that the public is often ill-informed through the articles and stories via mass media mediums because these outlets often glaze over this relationship, instead constructing stories simply based on reporting descriptive enrollment statistics and inflammatory statements from public figures.

This post is an extension to the former. However, instead of focusing on the relationship between declining state appropriations operations revenue and increases in undergraduate international students, this post focuses on retention of these students post-graduation. Specifically, it focuses on the narrow federal policies surrounding the H-1B visas and argues that such limited policies play weakening economic, technological, and social advantages.

As of 2013, there are over 800,000 international students enrolled within U.S. higher education institutions. Upon graduation, almost half of these students wish to stay within the U.S. to work and potentially explore pathways to citizenship. Yet, because of our limited H-1B visa policies the U.S. currently allows 65,000 H-1B visas for skilled workers with a bachelors’ degree (or equal experience) and another 20,000 for those with a masters’ degree or higher. The H-1B visa has become so competitive that in recent years the cap has been met within several days the start of the filing period. Thus, the limitations of federal visas force many American trained students to leave the country upon graduation and wait up to decades for an opportunity to return (Tang, 2013).

This practice has become rather problematic for America and American businesses because of the various limitations associated with being exclusionary. For example, Holen (2009) focuses on the economic losses associated with international students who gained degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) degrees. She concludes that if the H-1B visa constraints were removed from 2003–2007 182,000 graduates would have stayed in the U.S. supplying $2.7 to $3.6 billion to the federal government. Additionally, the limitations on visas has had negative effects on technology companies, thus has had a negative effect on American workers. A recent report indicates that large corporations such as Microsoft and Google are unable to expand their companies at greater levels because they have limited access to quality STEM employees. For example, the rejection of 178,000 H-1B visa applications from 2007–2008 cost 231,224 positions for domestic workers from 2009–2010. These companies’ need for more skilled STEM workers have encouraged significant spending toward lobbying policymakers to pass progressive immigration reform.

What does this topic have to do with public higher education organizations? Lots. As the public research universities are seemingly capitalizing on international students and many of these institutions have partnerships with tech companies; there is a vested interest in ensuring that more international students can obtain more visas. In response higher education has become active in financially lobbying and through various associations publicly supports increased H-1B visas and easier pathways to citizenship for American trained international students.

So why do we not have more inclusive immigration policies? Well, progressive policies have stymied because of the ideology and rhetoric surrounding the immigration debate. Although some outlets would lead people to believe that the immigration debate is predicated on economic circumstances, research by Hainmueller and Hopkins (2014)indicates that economic circumstances are not a determining factor. Instead the immigration debate is found to be fueled by ethnocentrism and racist views surrounding immigrants, the use of the economic debate is often a cover to perpetuate such intolerant views. Another reason we do not have progressive immigration policies for skilled workers is because in political circles and within mass-media outlets unskilled workers are skilled works are linked together. If progressive reforms for skilled worker are to have an opportunity to pass, Tang (2013) argues that stakeholders must disconnect the two groups and begin to own the narrative of the benefits of retaining the skilled workers.

I believe higher education needs to take action a step beyond Tang’s suggestions. Explicitly, I would encourage stakeholders to facilitate conversations and develop distinct legislation specifically for internationals who have gained a college degree from top-tier American institutions. As the H-1B visa system already has a tier of exempt visa, potentially higher education could assist policymakers in creating another tier of exempt status or a separate category of capped visas just for those who have earned degrees from American universities.

Daniel Collier, PhD

Written by

Post-Doctoral Researcher at Western Michigan University, eyeing the next step.

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