Are Immigration Policies Hampering U.S. Role in Training Global Workforce?

Last month, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reported that international graduate enrollment and applications at U.S. institutions have declined for the second year in a row. As Lily Jackson reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “In the fall of 2018, the final application count for prospective international graduate students declined by 4 percent, bringing the overall decline to 6 percent over the past two years.”

Why are these declines significant? One could easily argue that American-born applicants could now take seats that would otherwise be filled by international. In fact, Ms. Jackson notes that “just two years ago, nearly 30 percent of doctorates in the United States were awarded to international students.”

India and China have led other countries in producing the largest number of students applying to American colleges and universities.

According to the CGS, engineering, physical and earth sciences, and business saw drops in international students’ applications, while health sciences, mathematics, and computer sciences increased their number of international applicants.

Immigration Policies Threaten U.S. Role as Training Ground for Global Workforce

But, let’s look closer at the numbers. Ms. Jackson relates: “Engineering draws a majority of applicants, at 25 percent, but with drops as steep as 16 percent, those big-ticket fields now face concerning data.”

The implications for America’s role as a training ground for key sectors of the global workforce are ominous. How can America effectively export higher education on a global scale when its policies discourage the attendance of international students?

The answer is to develop a sensible immigration policy that provides for qualified and vetted international students, and more generally, offers a free exchange of the global workforce across national lines.

It’s silly and irrelevant to argue that much of the American workforce finds employment in American-owned companies. The point of NAFTA and other trade agreements was to develop national policy principles that reflected new global realities. Cars are built from parts made in Canada, Mexico, and the United States, at a minimum. It’s not either/or; in fact, it’s both. The same policy principles apply to American higher education.

Historically, the purpose of American higher education was to educate a national workforce, serving as a kind of safety value to nurture and expand the middle class while opening doors for first-generation students, immigrants, women, and returning veterans.

Its purpose paralleled the “open door” principles governing immigration in the 19thCentury that became admittedly more restrictive with late 19thcentury exclusion acts and the quota restrictions beginning in the 1920s.

But as American higher education extended its reach, government policies generally supported increases in foreign student applications to US colleges. As the CGS data suggest, some disciplines benefited more from the influx in foreign applications.

Today, U.S. higher education has a new set of problems. Many institutions, including a good number of research universities, depend heavily upon full-pay international students to meet the net tuition revenue targets that support operating budgets.

A few, notably the University of Illinois, have even taken out a form of catastrophic insurance in the event that the spigot should turn off their prospective foreign enrollments, notably from China.

As American higher education became more global in outlook and outreach, its dependence on foreign tuition dollars has put a number of very prestigious institutions in uncomfortable political and financial positions.

Separating the policy from the political dysfunction that surrounds it at the state and federal level raises a number of important questions:

  • Does America benefit most when a global brain drain puts the best and brightest foreign students into American colleges and universities because American higher education offers the best education available to them?
  • Does the United States lose its creative edge if immigration withers on the vine?
  • Should enlightened policy both encourage prudent immigration and provide employment in the American workforce for the best and brightest talent that we can attract to our colleges, regardless of nationality?
  • Absent a high birth rate in the United States, what policy best addresses the need for highly skilled, college-educated workers, particularly in periods of full employment?

So much of the immigration policy battles waged now are coded in fears that white America will lose its majority status. But rising beyond these fears the broader question is how does America understand its needs in workforce development?

However we structure the deal, the U.S. must trade across the globe to be prosperous and competitive. If its birth rates decline, the United States must have some way to attract new talent into the workforce. Colleges and universities provide the open door first-entry point that keeps us competitive.

Understanding How Higher Education Contributes to the Public Good

The issues for higher education are even broader, of course, than solving the immigration policy. The U.S. must understand the role that colleges and universities play in contributing to the public good.

This requires a reaffirmation of a college degree as an access point opportunity into the American middle class for college-bound students.

It’s not rocket science to understand the importance and implications of better national policy on immigration.

In the end, good immigration policy and improved access at home is profoundly in the national economic interest.
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