Johns Hopkins Business School Dean : Keep Foreign Students Here!

The king is dead; long live the king! For much of the past century, manufacturing was king in America, and American manufacturing ruled world markets; but ever since the economic slowdowns of the 1970s, pundits have fretted about the deindustrialization of America, and conventional wisdom now holds that America has become a post-industrial society, one that long ago ceded its manufacturing dominance to low-wage producers offshore. This picture is true to an extent, but it’s not the whole picture, as Yash Gupta, Dean of the Carey School of Business at Johns Hopkins University, points out in a recent editorial in the Baltimore Business Journal. (See America Needs to Keep Foreign Students After Graduation to Spur Innovation, Guest Notebook, by Yash Gupta, in Baltimore Business Journal, 16-22.Apr.2010 at 39,  full text available only to subscribers.) As Mark Twain might have put it, the rumors of America’s industrial demise are greatly exaggerated.

While it is true, says Gupta, that the American manufacturing workforce has been shrinking steadily – dropping from 26 percent of the U.S. workforce in 1970 to nine percent in 2010 – American manufacturing has just as steadily migrated upmarket. Gupta points out that the leading U.S. exports are in complex, high-value-added product lines like semiconductors, industrial machinery, commercial aircraft, telecom equipment and computer accessories, while China’s leading exports include a few high-tech product lines, but are dominated by “miscellaneous household goods, toys and sporting goods, and clothing.” Gupta argues essentially that other countries are welcome to the lower end of the manufacturing business, observing that “you might not think that the things you buy are made in America anymore, but when was the last time you bought a new cell phone tower?”

America’s continued strength in high-value, high-tech exports, Gupta writes, is intimately related to the quality of higher education in the United States. China may have more students at the university level, but the United States maintains a qualitative edge that far offsets China’s numerical advantage, Gupta contends, citing a yearly ranking produced by Jiao Tong University in Shanghai, which recently listed 17 American universities among the world’s top 20. Of the remaining institutions, 2 were British universities, one Japanese university, and none of the top 100 was in China. This, says Gupta, accounts for the vast number of Chinese students currently studying abroad – over 350,000 in degree programs at overseas universities, worldwide.

Therein lies both an opportunity and a threat, Gupta’s argument suggests. Foreign students can take their state-of-the-art learning home with them, and transfer their technological expertise to the home market – or they can stay on in places like the United States, using their prodigious gifts to advance industrial and technological innovation here. The choice is ours, to the extent we can make the prospect of staying here sufficiently attractive to the best and brightest foreign students who study in the United States. Gupta says we need to keep these students here, after they finish their degrees, and we need to recognize what stands in the way: harsh immigration measures, post-9/11, that make it harder for students to stay, and economic advances that provide new opportunities back in their home countries.

In sum, Gupta argues, “We need to make it easier for more of these foreign students to stay here after our universities have educated them. As much as our U.S.-born students, these smart young people from around the world carry the potential for American greatness into the 21st century and beyond.” Well said!

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