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How Foreign Students Hurt U.S. Innovation

By Norman Matloff
February 11, 2013 7:19 PM EST
Illustration by Rand Renfrow
Illustration by Rand Renfrow

In the old days, the U.S. program for foreign-student visas helped developing nations and brought diversity to then white-bread American campuses. Today, the F-1 program, as it is known, has become a profit center for universities and a wage-suppression tool for the technology industry.

International students are attractive to strapped colleges because they tend to pay full tuition or, in the case of public institutions, pay more than full price in out-of-state rates.

Last year, this was taken to a new level at California State University, East Bay, a public institution just south of Oakland. The school directed its master’s degree programs to admit only non-California students, including foreign students. Even before this edict, international students made up 90 percent of its computer-science master’s program.

The pursuit of foreign students by U.S. schools affects not only college access for Americans but also their careers. Back in 1989, an internal report of the National Science Foundation forecast that a large influx of F-1 doctoral students in science, technology, engineering and math -- the STEM fields -- would suppress wages. The stagnant salaries would then drive the American bachelor’s degree holders in these fields into more lucrative areas, such as business and law, after graduation, and discourage them from pursuing STEM doctorates.

Americans Diverted

This projection was dead-on. Contrary to the industry lobbyists’ claim of student shortages in these fields, an extensive 2007 Urban Institute study found that the U.S. has plenty of STEM graduates at the bachelor’s degree level, but few go on to graduate work in the field.

The shift has spawned a new term, “diversion,” alluding to the STEM grads who are diverted to other fields. Other professions use similar talents but pay much more and have brighter job prospects. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan has also advocated importing foreign workers to hold down wages (at all degree levels) in the technology industry. Financially, “it’s crazy to go into STEM” if you are a young person who is talented in math, as Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, put it.

Yet, seemingly oblivious to this troubling situation, President Barack Obama is proposing that we give special green cards to all foreign graduate students in these fields. Republican Senators Orrin Hatch and Marco Rubio, among others, have made similar proposals.

To such boosters, every foreign student is a future Nobel laureate. As Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren, author of one proposal, has said, “You can’t have too many geniuses.” To be sure, there are individual students from abroad who prove her point: the game changers. Yet the average quality of the international STEM students is lower than that of the Americans.

Focusing on computer science and electrical engineering, my recent research, which is scheduled to be published by the Economic Policy Institute in March, compared American natives with former F-1s who were working in the U.S. as of 2003. For workers of comparable age, educational attainment and so on, the former foreign students on average had fewer patent applications, attended lower-ranked U.S. universities and were less likely to be working in research and development positions. (Here is an earlier report I wrote.)

Interviewed after the Cal State East Bay furor, biology professor Maria Nieto said the increase in foreign students had decreased overall quality. The weak foreign students are being admitted “because they can pay,” she added.

Oversupply Effect

Not only was Lofgren’s comment about the geniuses a lot of hype, you can have too many STEM workers, as the National Science Foundation internal report’s projection showed. Last year, a commission appointed by the other top U.S. science agency, the National Institutes of Health, found that a severe oversupply has created a brutal job market for those who pursue doctorates in science research.

According to the report, graduates endure a gantlet of postdoctoral jobs (quasi-student positions that extend doctoral training) at low pay and long hours for years, all the while not knowing whether a permanent job will materialize in the end. For those who do eventually secure an academic position in biomedical research, the median age when starting the job is 37.

The NIH commission found that these bleak prospects may be dissuading the best and brightest Americans from entering careers in science research, and cited the large number of foreign postdoctoral researchers as a major cause of the glut of lab scientists. The Government Accountability Office has noted the relationship between that oversupply to the availability of foreign postdocs. About 54 percent of these postdocs are foreign.

None of this is to say the foreign student program should be shut down. But we shouldn’t be reducing educational and career opportunities for talented Americans.

Today, the F-1 and similar programs are discouraging qualified Americans from going into science and math careers, and are bringing us diversion, not diversity. Aside from the effect on individuals and their careers, there are serious issues of national interest. Displacing those Americans who might potentially be more innovative -- extrapolating from the patents per-capita numbers -- and filling classrooms with foreign students who aren’t as likely to produce such breakthroughs is a net economic loss for the nation.

How does the U.S. begin to fix this imbalance? Rather than offering work visas and green cards to all foreign students attaining U.S. postgraduate degrees, legislation should focus on facilitating the immigration of top talent.

(Norman Matloff is a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Norman Matloff at matloff@cs.ucdavis.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.

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