Opinion

Saving America’s Greatest Import: Graduate Students With Advanced Skills

The influx of U.S.-educated immigrants is in jeopardy.

Debra W. Stewart is the president of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), the leading organization dedicated to the improvement and advancement of graduate education in the U.S. and around the world.
National Journal
Debra W. Stewart
April 10, 2014, 1:48 a.m.

As Con­gress de­bates up­com­ing le­gis­la­tion on im­mig­ra­tion re­form, we have a new op­por­tun­ity to con­sider policies that de­term­ine our coun­try’s abil­ity to in­nov­ate and com­pete glob­ally. Many in­ter­na­tion­al gradu­ates of U.S. gradu­ate pro­grams have his­tor­ic­ally found ways to re­main after gradu­ation, stim­u­lat­ing our eco­nomy, sup­port­ing ground­break­ing re­search, and cre­at­ing start-up com­pan­ies and jobs for all Amer­ic­ans. And yet the in­flux of highly skilled U.S.-edu­cated im­mig­rants is in jeop­ardy. 

Im­mig­ra­tion policies de­veloped in the 1950s have not kept pace with the emer­gence of new glob­al eco­nom­ies. Eco­nom­ic com­pet­it­ors like China are in­vest­ing re­sources in their own gradu­ate in­sti­tu­tions, which keeps many stu­dents from leav­ing to pur­sue gradu­ate edu­ca­tion abroad. Mean­while, high­er-edu­ca­tion policies in Europe and Canada have gen­er­ated at­tract­ive fund­ing pack­ages de­signed to re­cruit the most tal­en­ted pro­spect­ive gradu­ate stu­dents.

The House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives will soon con­sider a num­ber of bills to re­form im­mig­ra­tion laws, and law­makers must take two clear ac­tions to en­sure that we don’t lose our na­tion’s greatest im­port: ad­vanced skills.

First, we must en­sure that qual­i­fic­a­tion for “dual in­tent” status — the abil­ity to de­clare one’s in­ten­tion to ap­ply for per­man­ent res­id­ence in the U.S. while sim­ul­tan­eously resid­ing leg­ally in the U.S. — is ex­ten­ded to all in­ter­na­tion­al gradu­ate stu­dents. Right now, stu­dents must say they have no in­ten­tion to stay or work in the U.S. upon gradu­ation, even be­fore they be­gin their stud­ies. This policy en­cour­ages the best and bright­est stu­dents to take their ideas, in­nov­a­tions, and hard work else­where.

One could even ar­gue that dual-in­tent status should be ex­ten­ded to in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dents pur­su­ing bach­el­or’s de­grees whose edu­ca­tion­al goal is to con­tin­ue to gradu­ate school in the U.S. Such stu­dents could deep­en the pool of po­ten­tial tal­ent from which U.S. gradu­ate pro­grams re­cruit stu­dents. But the most im­me­di­ate and com­pel­ling need is to ex­tend the ca­pa­city to all in­ter­na­tion­al gradu­ate stu­dents at a min­im­um.

Why do cur­rent policies deny this status to in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dents? In the 1950s, when cur­rent im­mig­ra­tion policies were put in place, our coun­try was an eco­nomy fo­cused on the man­u­fac­tur­ing of ma­ter­i­als. Now we are part of a glob­al eco­nomy based on know­ledge. Edu­cat­ing and re­tain­ing glob­al tal­ent that sup­ports our coun­try’s know­ledge eco­nomy will be crit­ic­al to our eco­nom­ic suc­cess.

The Skills Act, which the House is likely to con­sider in the com­ing months, pro­poses ex­tend­ing dual-in­tent status to stu­dents pur­su­ing study in a field of sci­ence, tech­no­logy, en­gin­eer­ing and math­em­at­ics, be­cause STEM fields are seen as par­tic­u­larly crit­ic­al to U.S. in­nov­a­tion. As Gary Sha­piro, Head of the Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Bur­eau, re­cently put it, “En­cour­aging bright minds to stay in the United States after gradu­ation … is crit­ic­al to se­cure our coun­try’s po­s­i­tion as a high-tech hub and glob­al lead­er in in­nov­a­tion.” This is also the per­spect­ive of the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, which has long viewed highly skilled im­mig­rants as crit­ic­al con­trib­ut­ors to the U.S. eco­nomy.

It would be short-sighted, however, to lim­it dual in­tent to STEM stu­dents only. Why? We simply can’t pre­dict where the next in­nov­a­tions and work­force de­vel­op­ments will emerge. Will the next in­nov­at­or be an MBA gradu­ate, like Philip Al­ex­an­der, an In­di­an-born Amer­ic­an who de­veloped Brand­muscle, which em­ploys nearly 600 soft­ware and ad­vert­ising pro­fes­sion­als in four ma­jor U.S. cit­ies? Will it be Genevieve Bell, who re­ceived an Amer­ic­an Ph.D. in an­thro­po­logy and now leads In­tel’s ef­forts to un­der­stand the so­cial and cul­tur­al factors af­fect­ing the way con­sumers use tech­no­logy? Dual in­tent must be ex­ten­ded to all in­ter­na­tion­al stu­dents, re­gard­less of field, who ap­ply for U.S. visas upon ad­mis­sion to gradu­ate school, as al­lowed in the com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form bill passed by the Sen­ate last year.

Second, we must in­crease the num­ber of H-1B visas — set aside for spe­cial­ized work­ers — avail­able to gradu­ate-de­gree hold­ers. This visa quota is ham­per­ing U.S. in­nov­a­tion at this very mo­ment. The U.S. began ac­cept­ing visa pe­ti­tions on April 1, and the cap on H-1Bs was ex­pec­ted to be reached al­most im­me­di­ately there­after. The visa cap, now set at 65,000, turns away many highly skilled in­di­vidu­als re­ceiv­ing gradu­ate de­grees from our uni­versit­ies, people whom U.S. busi­nesses are seek­ing to stim­u­late their own growth and prosper­ity.

While di­vided on spe­cif­ic im­mig­ra­tion policies, the House now faces a choice that is clearly good for all states and all Amer­ic­ans. We must give our coun­try the skills it needs to cre­ate more jobs and eco­nom­ic growth for Amer­ica.

Debra W. Stew­art is pres­id­ent of the Coun­cil of Gradu­ate Schools. 

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The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial ef­fects of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force, and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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