NAFSA: U.S. Needs to Attract More International Students

For a long time, global economic competition came down to this: who had the best products at the most favorable price. In today’s economy, it goes a step further. So much value is wrapped up in intellectual property and innovation – brilliant ideas, turned into products – that nations now compete to see who can attract the world’s most creative minds, the ones capable of thinking up the Next Big Thing, and getting it efficiently to market. That competition begins at the university level.

According to NAFSA: Association of International Educators, students from around the world are increasingly studying outside their home countries, in numbers that have nearly doubled in the period spanning 2001 (2.1 million students studying abroad) and 2011 (4.1 million students). [See Global Market Share of International Students – Top Host Countries, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Jun.2014.] At the same time, though, the U.S. share of that market has been shrinking, from 2001 (28 percent) and 2006 (22 percent) to 2011 (19 percent), a loss NAFSA attributes to mounting competition from other countries.

By contrast, Canada’s share of the foreign student market has more than doubled, from 2 percent in 2001 to 5 percent in 2011, and China’s has more than tripled, from 2 percent (2001) to 7 percent (2011). (Statistics for India were not broken out separately from the aggregate figure for the rest of the world).

In a recent policy seminar on Capitol Hill, NAFSA made its case for immigration reform legislation that would help the United States to attract a larger share of the international student population. Their goal: to make it “less challenging for students and scholars from around the world to study here, bring global perspectives in classrooms and research labs, support innovation, and contribute to the economy.” [See Immigration Reform and the Global Competition for International Students, event announcement, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, 26.Jun.2014.]

Beyond the long-term competitive reasons for attracting world-class talent to our universities, there are immediate benefits to consider. As other recent NAFSA research reveals, international students support a broad swath of economic activity in this country: “during the 2012-2013 academic year, international students and their dependents across the United States supported 313,000 jobs and contributed $24 billion to the U.S. economy,” pumping funds into “higher education, accommodation, dining, retail, transportation, telecommunications, and health insurance.” [See Economic Benefits of International Students, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, Jun.2014.]

Although the U.S. slice of the pie has been getting smaller in recent years, the good news is that the pie itself has been getting bigger, so that the dollars contributed to the U.S. economy by foreign students have been increasing steadily, along with the number of jobs created. NAFSA’s point is well taken, though: there’s no reason to settle for a shrinking share of this market, and the consequences for our international competitiveness are not to be taken lightly. If Congress doesn’t fix our immigration system – and soon – we may lose out on some of the best minds of this generation.

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