Should America educate its competitors? At a time of economic worry, this is a highly important question.
American universities are the envy of the world, which is why the number of foreign students they attract is again increasing after a brief slowdown induced by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Because even those who pay full tuition do not actually cover the total cost of their education, will Americans at some point cry foul?
This may seem an absurd notion, given the obvious good will generated when America hosts international students. However, in an era where America is increasingly counting on intellectual capital to compete in world markets, the notion of exporting that capital — at a discount, no less — may strike some as stupid.
The question is especially pertinent today. In the past, foreign students attended American colleges and universities and then eagerly accepted jobs in America. Few foreign countries offered equivalent opportunities to so quickly benefit from higher learning, so students were easily tempted to set down roots in the U.S., many eventually becoming American citizens.
That has changed. These days, many if not most foreign students are all too excited to return home and participate in their own local booming economies — economies that are thriving mainly because of the outsourcing of American jobs or because they are successfully undercutting American manufacturers. Consider: The top three countries sending students to America are India (no. 1, for the sixth year in a row), China, and South Korea. What do they study? Business, engineering, and the sciences, in that order.
There is nothing wrong with India and China employing their natural advantages, which include large work forces, to compete on the basis of lower production costs. But someone is bound to ask why America isn't using its advantages, which include higher education, in the same way. Why not restrict the number of foreign engineering and technology students flowing through our campuses, and keep America's superior training ground its students? Americans are the ones who have built the endowments of private institutions that help pay for those degrees; Americans pay the taxes that bridge the gap between tuition and the cost of educating all those fertile young minds. Keep in mind that 26% of the tuition of these foreign students is paid by the schools they attend.
Okay, so I don't really believe that America should chuck out foreign students. I do think that exposing young people from around the world to our great country is extremely positive for international relations. (Even though the anti-U.S. mindset of many, many university professors does not help the cause.) Think of King Abdullah II of Jordan, who attended Deerfield Academy and was so taken with it that he is building a copycat institution in Jordan. That has to be a good thing.
But, if you believe that these international students should of course be granted access to America's schools, shouldn't we try to keep them in the U.S.?
I'm referring to the controversy over H1-B visas, which allow highly skilled workers to get jobs in America. The immigration debate simply should not include highly educated workers. Congress has capped the number of H1-B visas at 65,000, down from 115,000 during the technology boom, when Silicon Valley was struggling to supply its ranks of software engineers. There are additional 20,000 visas available to students graduating with advanced degrees from American schools (compared to about 300,000 international graduate students). Last year, the visas were snapped up in one day. The government received almost 124,000 petitions before it closed the window.
Why is this so important? Because the alternative path to hiring skilled workers, through regular immigration, can take many years. Few employers are willing to wait around for that long. In 2006, the Senate passed a bill that would increase the number of H1-B visas to 115,000, and would allow for greater flexibility going forward. It would have increased the number available for people with advanced degrees from American universities and allocated more visas to citizens of countries with whom we establish trade agreements.
You may be wondering who in the world could be opposed to expanding the H1-B visas. There are some who argue that employers want to hire foreign nationals because they can pay them less, and others claim that the visa program reduces employees to indentured servant status.
The numbers do not support these objections. The National Foundation for American Policy put out a study in December full of facts and figures that indicates the abuse of the program is minor. It also shows that thousands of job searches are under way at the tech companies. During the tech boom, as salaries for hard-to-find programmers and engineers went through the roof, it is likely that foreigners were hired at below prevailing rates. That is now illegal. Further, the founder of Immigration Voice, Aman Kapoor, says abuses could easily be cleared up by establishing protections for whistleblowers.
There are, naturally, labor organizations opposing expansion of the H1-B program. The Programmers Guild and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers are two such groups claiming that foreigners drive down wages for their members. A spokesman for the IEEE, Chris McManes, argues that there are "no systemic shortages of electrical engineers" though he acknowledges that "there are shortages in some geographic areas and in some emerging industries."
In propping up wage scales that are likely a hangover from the tech boom of the late 1990s, these organizations are of course pushing corporations to outsource. As the head of the National Foundation for Public Policy, Stuart Anderson, says, "It makes no sense to not view this as a global labor market." He says that while America refuses to welcome highly skilled workers, the European Parliament is currently at work on a provision that aims to attract such laborers.
At the very least, we should be sure that foreigners who are educated in our universities are allowed to stay and work in our country. As Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute says, "Graduate students should have green cards stapled to their diplomas." Amen to that.