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Knowledge is Power

A college president makes a case for increased attention to international students.
University Business, Sep 2005

The U.S. economy is built on brainpower. Its growth is not driven by class or wealth, but by the ability of its citizens to create, innovate, and improve products and services. It is a knowledge economy, and the key to success in a knowledge economy is the higher education system. Historically, U.S. institutions of higher education have served as a magnet for the global creative class, and for years we've been assured of our leadership in attracting the world's best and brightest minds.

Not anymore. Recent reports from multiple sectors have shown a steady, significant decrease in the number of international students enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities. Among the most comprehensive of these reports is Open Doors 2004, the annual report on international academic mobility published by the Institute of International Education (IIE). According to 2004 research, the number of international students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions decreased by 2.4 percent in 2003-2004. And since most international students come to the United States to pursue full-time degrees over several years, this decrease is likely to lead to several years of lower enrollments.

The decline is deeply troubling to U.S. educators and economists, and with good reason. When I began my business career in the 1970s, the U.S. was experiencing solid GDP growth and was a worldwide leader in scientific research and development. But in the early 1980s I observed a subtle shift in our international business competitiveness. While overseas industries were steadily growing, certain sectors in the U.S. were experiencing a slow, but detectable, erosion.

When I entered higher education, I saw the interplay of these same dynamics side-by-side with the declining interest of American students in the fields of science and engineering. Now, as president of a liberal arts and sciences university, I see clear evidence of the international education sector outpacing the U.S. in certain disciplines--and the gap is widening.

The fact of the matter is this: Whether we're educators, legislators, scientists, business leaders, or researchers, we all have a very big stake in this issue. The futures of both our students and of the U.S. economy are being played out on an increasingly global stage, and the failure of the U.S. to stay competitive in higher education will cause serious problems for our future economic growth and standard of living.

Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman addressed this trend as early as 2003, when she testified to a U.S. House committee regarding the increasing visa backlogs and the effect it was having on the drain of brainpower in the U.S.:

"Almost 20 percent of the distinguished scientists and engineers who are members of the National Academy of Sciences, and more than a third of U.S. Nobel laureates, are foreign-born," she said. "According to the 2002 Science and Engineering Indicators, nearly a third of the doctoral degrees in science and engineering awarded in the U.S. each year go to foreign nationals, with well over 40 percent of the doctoral degrees in engineering and computer science earned by foreign students. Two-thirds of foreign students who receive a Ph.D. in science or engineering stay in the United States, taking positions in academia and industry, and nearly 40 percent of the current U.S. engineering faculty is foreign-born."

Almost two years later, Business-Higher Education Forum's January 2005 study comparing international education statistics gives us an even better indication of these trends. "Commitment to America's Future: Responding to the Crisis in Mathematics and Science Education," reports the following:

In China, undergraduate enrollments are expanding 10 times faster than in the United States, and three-quarters of all Chinese baccalaureates pursue degrees in mathematics, science, and engineering.

The failure of the U.S. to stay
competitive in higher education
will cause serious problems for
our future economic growth
and standard of living.

In 1999, American colleges and universities granted 61,000 undergraduate degrees in engineering. Meanwhile, Japan produced 103,000 engineers, the nations of the European Union, 134,000, and China, 195,000.

A 2005 National Science Board (NSB) report showed that the United States now ranks 17th (among developed nations) in the proportion of college students majoring in science and engineering. In 1975 the United States ranked third.

And the key finding? According to the U.S. Department of Labor, by 2008 there will be 51 percent more jobs requiring science, engineering, and technical training than there were in 1998. Even more significantly, a recent study by Richard Freeman at the National Bureau of Economic Research projects that, by 2010, universities in the European Union will grant nearly 100 percent more science and engineering doctorates than the United States.

Although the seeds of this problem were actually sown much earlier, some of the blame can be placed on the restrictive immigration and visa laws enacted after 9/11. Combined with horror stories (with varying degrees of credibility) concerning a newly hostile, foreigner-phobic America, the restrictive changes in immigration laws discouraged many students who would otherwise study in the United States. And though there has been some recent improvement in this attitude, and clear recognition by our government that we have a serious perception problem, many international students still consider the United States "unwelcoming" and the immigration laws strict and confusing.

But beyond the problems that remain in the aftermath of 9/11, there are other, more subtle factors affecting international enrollments. Chief among these factors are the increased investments that foreign governments have been making in their own higher education infrastructures. Recognizing the link between a growing economy and a successful higher education system, these countries are employing effective strategies to retain their students. China, for example, doubled its grad programs. Universities in Australia and New Zealand are much more competitive on quality and cost. Europe is streamlining its higher education policies as well as its academic systems. Cross-border study is being supported and encouraged; the Bologna Accord, for instance, first signed in 1999 by 29 countries, is helping to streamline European higher education by creating international learning networks.

More foreign governments
have begun to recognize
the link between a growing
economy and a successful
higher education system.

As a result, foreign countries are increasing their employment opportunities as well. In India, for example, the outsourcing trend that began in the 1980s is now a well-established economic tool, and its success is increasingly encouraging bright students to defer or even postpone their postgraduate education. Germany is recruiting for jobs that will open as its workforce approaches retirement, and overseas business schools are expanding and providing international students (including those from the United States) with high-quality programs and more choices--choices that will entice many to bypass the U.S. educational system altogether and seek professional opportunities overseas.

If these trends continue, the impact on the U.S. will be profound. International students currently bring more than $13 billion to the U.S. economy. And even though the number of international students studying outside their home country is projected to increase by 6 million in the next 20 years, the rising costs of higher education in the U.S, combined with the improved quality of foreign universities, is forcing many students to examine other options.

As a result of this decrease, the learning environment in U.S. classrooms will be sharply diminished. Not only is a global perspective critical to the quality of our students' education; in today's rapidly shrinking world, global awareness is indispensable. And international students often return to their home countries as leaders with lasting ties to the United States. Considering too that a significant percentage of the current U.S. workforce will retire by the end of the decade, more employment will shift where the talent is--overseas. Ultimately, this loss of a brainpower network will take a significant toll on higher education, and by extension, on the U.S. economy itself.

So what are the solutions that can provide, at the very least, some short-term, immediate relief? We need to:

Address immigration law and visa restriction problems. There is an extremely negative perception surrounding the U.S. visa process. For example, many students are unwilling to return to their home country for a renewal they may or may not receive. As educators, we need to provide consistent feedback to the U.S. government regarding immigration law reform, and regularly communicate the impact that changes in these laws have on the U.S. higher education system.

Increase financial aid opportunities for international students. Government funding has been steadily diminishing, and we are losing international students as a result.

Improve the information network for international students. Two critical areas need attention: the process of applying and after-enrollment expectations. Currently there is little coordination of international student services, whether they fall within the boundaries of our own campuses or in an outside network of higher education. Although some progress has been made, much remains to be done to improve communication and provide greater clarity to international students.

Provide career path information to students, with sensitivity to what international students face. As we strengthen and expand our academic programs, we must provide direction and career development skills to match.

Expand international marketing efforts. We must change the negative perception of the U.S. overseas. Clearly, our government is sensitive to this. And though the U.S. is not used to marketing itself to attract international students, we no longer have a choice. We need to expand the support staff to facilitate and ease the entry and education of international students. An examination of what overseas institutions are doing to integrate foreign students into their educational systems is important, too. We should catalog the impact these international students have on U.S. institutions, and then document their contributions--including the non-tangible ones.

Concentrate on what we can do now to ensure that we remain competitive. We can get more U.S. students involved in science and engineering as early in their academic careers as possible and establish greater collaboration between higher education and K-12 to improve our core curriculum and take a holistic approach to the lifelong process of learning. We can seek expanded cooperation with U.S. industry to improve career paths and assure program completion, specifically with historically underrepresented groups like women and minorities, such as Pfizer's minority internship mentoring programs and Dell's diversity-focused recruiting and education initiatives.

Commit resources to mentorship programs for international students. They need guidance throughout their entire academic careers, both undergraduate and postgraduate studies. To do this, we must aggressively seek funding for science/engineering education and financial aid. In the past decade, government funding has decreased at an alarming rate, and the result is a loss of our ability to compete with countries that can afford quality higher education at a lower cost.

The bottom line is this: The declining enrollment of international students has serious long-term implications for the United States. If we do not make this issue a priority, higher education may follow the same path that the auto, textile, and electronics industries did--and its competitive advantage will be lost.

Some progress is being made. The introduction of the American Competitiveness through International Openness Now Act, which addresses many of the visa and immigration problems currently hindering international students and researchers, is especially notable. But we will have to take it farther than the reform of current immigration laws. Otherwise, we will lose much more than the skill, knowledge, and talent international students provide. We will lose the U.S.'s reputation for higher education opportunities, and we will lose more of our students to competitive international universities.

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, stated recently that this drop in foreign enrollments, combined with the aging work force and the declining interest of young Americans in science careers, is "a perilous combination of developments." In summation, she posed this question: "Who will do the science of this millennium?"

Good question. And as leaders in higher education, it's one we not only need to ask, but to take serious, direct steps to address.

Lee Higdon is president of the College of Charleston (S.C.), which serves mainly state residents but currently has students from 65 foreign countries.