The 21st Century University — and Economy — Depends on International Students

“What people don’t understand is that education is a business right now — especially international education,” says Karin Lee, chair of the Mississippi Association of International Educators and Study Mississippi Consortium. “Nationally, international students account for just 5 percent of the students enrolled in American colleges and universities, and yet they still contributed nearly $33 billion to the United States economy in 2015.”

As in many states, Mississippi’s international students pay out-of-state tuition, which can be more than double the in-state tuition rate. In Mississippi, international students contributed more than $68 million to the local economy and supported 738 jobs in the 2014-2015 school year.

“There is a misconception that international students are funded by the university, and that is complete hogwash,” Lee says. “It’s the opposite. Funding for state universities has been reduced to next to nothing, so having that extra tuition money from international students is huge. Now add to that the cost of living and other things they have to spend while they’re here, and that’s a lot of revenue for universities.”

In addition to economic benefits, these students also make the United States more globally competitive. Students, she says, need to be exposed to different cultures, “because, once they graduate, chances are they will work for a boss from somewhere else. Welcoming more international students is a way to expose American students to different cultures.”

Lee was born in Germany, where undergraduate tuition fees were abolished in 2014, allowing both domestic and international students to study for free. “How do you bring a student to Mississippi when they could go to Germany and study for free?” she asks. She moved to the United States with her husband, an Army veteran whom she met when he was stationed in Germany. When he retired from active duty in 1995, they relocated to Starkville. Lee says the community there welcomed her, an attitude she tries to convey to potential foreign students.

Having that extra tuition money from international students is huge

“They don’t realize we exist as a state,” she says of Mississippi, “much less that we have universities that are pretty good and affordable for international students. And we’re not what everyone in California or New York thinks either. Not everyone owns a gun. Starkville is pretty diverse; we have a mosque and just elected our first female mayor. There’s a lot of good stuff happening in Mississippi.”

Unfortunately, in a 2017 survey conducted by a coalition of U.S. higher education associations, 39 percent of U.S. colleges and universities reported a decline in international applications, with the sharpest drop reported from the Middle East. International students cited a perceived rise in visa denials, a perception that the United States had become less welcoming to outsiders, and concerns that travel and employment opportunities would be further restricted, something Lee confirms she is hearing in her own professional circles. “A lot of students think coming to the United States is too uncertain right now,” she says. “They are worried that they will come here, and the policy would change, and they’ll be sent home without a degree or the money that they put toward it.”

She says other countries are benefiting from America’s loss. While visiting India, Lee met many students choosing to study in Canada and Australia. “They offer a clear path to citizenship and we don’t,” she says. “We make it very hard. And that is causing the value of an American degree to deteriorate.”

The barriers facing international students hoping to remain in the United States after graduation also does not bode well. Take, for example, the projected shortage of one million STEM workers by 2022. Currently, foreign-born students earn roughly one out of every three graduate-level degrees in science, technology, engineering, and  math (STEM) fields in the United States. What will happen to those industries and the innovation they fuel when those students instead go to Canada and Australia, where 60 percent of green cards are given for economic reasons, such as worker shortages, compared to the 14 percent of green cards handed out for the same reason in the United States? “We are not giving them any incentive,” says Lee. “If we don’t have people from India working in IT, who is going to help us? I work in a state school and our math department would not exist if not for foreigners. There just are not enough Americans going into those kinds of fields.”

Lee advocates for immigration reform, that would include a clear path to permanent residency for students who perform well and graduate from an American university. “If you did everything by the book, and you have excellent grades, and you graduated, and have been paying taxes and want to stay in America and contribute even more, we shouldn’t punish you or make you rely on a lottery to get a green card,” she says. “These students are not liabilities — they are assets. We should do everything we can to keep them here to found their companies and create jobs, instead of sending them back home to do those things.”

Nationally, more than 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. In Mississippi’s Third Congressional District, where Lee lives, at least 760 immigrants own their own businesses.

Additionally, Lee also wants to ensure that the paperwork for all visas, including green cards and citizenship, are processed in a timely fashion. “I have a friend who graduated with a PhD in math in 2005,” says Lee. “She is brilliant, teaches at a private school, pays taxes, owns a home, and still she has been waiting to get her citizenship for 12 years. She is thinking of going to Canada. Think about what a loss that would be.”

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…