American employers across a host of industries have long understood the great value in welcoming promising students from around the globe to study, learn, and contribute their knowledge and talents to the benefit of the United States. Likewise, international students know that the United States is the premier destination for those looking to get the best education, and the U.S. continues to attract the highest number of international students worldwide.
The benefits of recruiting foreign students are clear. A recent analysis conducted by NAFSA: Association of International Educators estimated that international students at U.S. colleges and universities created or supported more than 455,000 jobs in the U.S. and contributed $39 billion to the economy over the 2017-2018 period. Upon graduation, many of these students want to stay in the country to perform cutting edge research, fill urgent shortages in industries where domestic talent is in short supply, or start their own companies here—in the process creating jobs for American workers. Indeed, more than 20 percent of “startup” companies valued over $1 billion were founded by immigrants who first came to the U.S. as students.
Regrettably, we have recently seen a drop in international student enrollment at U.S. colleges and universities. Specifically, another NAFSA report released in May 2019 details a three-year decline in international student enrollment, with a 3.3 percent decrease in 2016, a 6.6 percent decrease in 2017, and an estimated 1.7 percent decrease in 2018. This decline stands in stark contrast with the international enrollment trends during the 2011-2015 period, when international student enrollment in the U.S. increased each year by an average of 7.06 percent.
Similar negative enrollment trends were revealed in the National Science Board’s 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report. Between fall 2016 and fall 2017, the number of international graduate students pursuing computer science degrees fell by approximately by 13 percent, while enrollment in engineering programs sank by 8 percent. These are ominous trends for employers that rely upon these students to meet their future workforce needs.
Multiple factors contribute to this decline, but concerns about our nation’s immigration system are viewed by many as a key reason. An annual survey conducted by the Institute of International Education in 2018 cited visa application process issues or visa delays/denials as the most commonly cited explanation for why international students are deciding to pursue higher education opportunities outside the U.S.
Another factor that needs to be considered is what measures other countries are employing to draw international students. For example, Canada not only allows international students to attend college but also provides them with more opportunities to stay and work in Canada after they graduate. Upon graduation, international students in Canada automatically qualify for a work permit for a period of up to three years, and the Canadian system provides these individuals with the ability to pursue permanent residency.
Comparatively, international students in the U.S. have a much tougher time staying and working post-graduation. Opportunities for obtaining permanent residency after graduation are extremely limited, and international graduates from American universities must either acquire an H-1B visa or qualify to stay in the U.S. on Optional Practical Training, commonly referred to as “OPT.” Unfortunately, H-1B visas have become more difficult to obtain in recent years. Denial rates have increased, and processing delays have become more common with the federal government requesting additional information from a higher percentage of H-1B applicants than it did in prior years.
OPT is a critical program for many American businesses, as it allows promising individuals the opportunity to stay, work, and train at American companies in various industries. This program not only provides international graduates with a well-rounded educational experience but allows companies to nurture the careers of individuals who possess the skills their businesses desperately need. However, the OPT program is currently at risk of being eliminated in federal court. In order to protect this important program, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Information Technology Industry Council have intervened in litigation to ensure that it is properly defended.
The simple fact is that other countries are becoming more competitive in their fight for the world’s share of the “best and brightest.” Our policies sorely need updating to ensure that the U.S. maintains and builds upon its stature as the number one destination for the leaders of tomorrow. Congress and the President must update our nation’s legal immigration system to provide more opportunities for international students at U.S. universities to obtain nonimmigrant work visas and permanent residency once they graduate. Furthermore, the federal government must work side by side with the business community and ensure that the Optional Practical Training Program survives.
Our nation can no longer afford to neglect these issues. The longer we wait, the more we stand to lose.