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Foreign enrollments explain Obama's skills push

Patrick Thibodeau | Feb. 9, 2011
Foreign student enrollments for doctorates in math, engineering and computer sciences continue to grow

FRAMINGHAM 9 FEBRUARY 2011 - WASHINGTON - In his State of the Union address late last month, President Barack Obama held out the promise of an easier path to immigration for foreign advanced degree graduates from U.S. universities.

Underscoring Obama's interest in foreign students earning advanced degrees are their sheer numbers.

According to research by Robert Hamilton, who works with NASA on a cooperative earth sciences project and studies immigration issues, less than 3,000 science and engineering doctorates were awarded to foreign students in 1980. Those students represented 16% of the total receiving such degrees, meaning that U.S. citizens earned 84% of science and engineering doctorates obtained in U.S. universities that year.

By 2005, though, 11,109 foreign students awarded doctorates in science and engineering, accounting for 38% of the total degrees in the field.

"These student pipelines to the United States appear to be facing growing competition from other nations desiring the best and brightest foreign students of the world," said Hamilton.

Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution, where Hamilton and other immigration experts presented their data, spoke favorably of policies that would give permanent residency, green cards, to foreign graduates of U.S. universities who receive advanced degrees.

"I would argue that economic benefits are huge," he said.

"We don't have the best device for picking who is going to be the Sergey Brin - who is going to end up starting Google," said West, "So you need to admit numbers sufficient to raise the probability of actually being able to find those people."

Similarly, Jennifer Hunt, a professor of economics at McGill University in Montreal, argued that skilled immigration can raise U.S. productivity, and that "more people are more likely to have more ideas."

But Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, said he has an issue with rules that would automatically "staple" the green card onto the graduate degrees of foreign students.

Lowell said Australia tried a similar plan, and found that "students came to Australia to get landed status, not to study."

"Greater numbers will not necessarily yield you greater results," he said "You have to design the incentive structure right."

The H-1B visa is often cited as a path to permanent residency, but Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, presented data showing that few H-1B holders working for the large offshore firms sought green cards.


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