All the media attention these days around global trade tensions is missing a potentially longer-lasting looming danger to U.S. competitiveness: Fewer of the world’s “best and brightest” are choosing to study at U.S. universities.
For decades, U.S. universities have served as the top destination for some of the world’s most talented and promising students.
The benefits of our welcoming education system have rippled across our economy in countless tangible and intangible ways.
The direct economic impact of international students enriches many universities and communities.
According to the Association of International Educators (NAFSA), international students contributed approximately $37 billion to the U.S. economy in 2017, creating more than 450,000 jobs. And every seven international students support three domestic jobs.
But the most valuable contribution is undoubtedly the intellectual capital international students bring, emboldened and inspired by our culture of diversity, innovation, and openness.
Foreign students who studied at U.S. universities and then went on to make significant economic and societal contributions includes Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, architect I. M. Pei, and journalist Fareed Zakaria, among many, many others past and present.
These individuals and countless others who came to America’s shores seeking economic and intellectual freedom are inextricably woven into the fabric of the country.
But now, the world’s best and brightest are increasingly abandoning the United States in favor of other more welcoming destinations.
The number of international student visas for study in the United States in 2017 was 40 percent lower than it was in 2015.
But globally, the number of international students continues to rise. Where are they choosing to go?
They are flocking to universities in a variety of countries that appear to better appreciate the social and economic benefits of international students.
More welcoming developed markets are attracting greater numbers of international students. International enrollment surged by 20 percent in Canada in the past year.
Australia also enjoyed a 13 percent increase. But emerging markets are also seizing the opportunity. China has now entered the competition for talent in a big way.
In a testament to Beijing’s growing prowess in higher education, two Chinese universities entered the top 30 of world’s best universities for the first time in 2017.
And China attracted no less than 10 percent of all international students that year.
China is determined to strengthen its attractiveness to international students even further. Beijing recently eased work restrictions for foreign students, for instance.
Other emerging markets are also increasingly determined to play hardball for international students.
Turkey is enticing international students by offering health and employment incentives, for example. And Russia has built an ambitious plan to triple international student enrollment. The United States’ loss is therefore other countries’ gain.
The loss of foreign students will be amplified by the loss of many other talented foreigners who see an unwelcoming immigration system as a deterrent to living in the United States.
As a result, America will likely suffer from lower levels of innovation. Immigrants founded more than 50 percent of U.S. startups valued at over $1 billion. And from 1901 to 2015, 31 percent of U.S. Nobel Laureates were foreign-born.
The ultimate price for these restrictive visa policies will be paid by the U.S. private sector, with a ripple effect throughout the American economy.
Statistics show that almost 70 percent of international master’s students pursue science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) degrees.
These are precisely the fields in which U.S. employers face a shortage of workers.
The lost talent of international students—many of whom stay in the United States to work and thrive—will surely exacerbate the worsening skills gap.
The result is likely to be lower productivity and higher labor costs at U.S. companies in the future.
To prevent this deteriorating situation from turning into an outright crisis, bold leadership and stronger collaboration are needed.
The business community needs to be more organized and articulate than ever before about communicating the impact of restrictive visa policies on their profitability and competitiveness.
Companies could also be a part of the solution through other measures, such as covering more of the immigration or visa-related costs that international students face. And American policymakers need to overcome the growing partisan divides to collectively recognize that foreign students and national competitiveness are inextricably intertwined.