THE BLOG
07/23/2014 02:02 pm ET | Updated Sep 22, 2014

Education and Immigration: Why Keeping International Students Is a Good Thing for the Economy

The United States is seeing increasing numbers of international students. According to the International Students Report, 819,644 international studied in U.S. colleges and universities in 2013. U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement's Homeland Securities Investigations projects that number will likely increase significantly for the 2014 school year. Still, some international students are turning to other countries because of their easier immigration policies that allow students to remain in the country once they graduate. But what's the problem with having these students leave once they graduate? Plenty.

International students have enrolled at American institutions and this is good for the bottom line of these schools. Administrators at these institutions say such students promote the diversity and global perspectives on campus, but these students provide more. The economic downturn of the past five years has forced a decline in state spending at the universities. The numbers reveal a 28 percent reduction on higher education spending and out-of-state and international students have kept these schools in the black.

Francesco Sanchez, the undersecretary for international trade at the Commerce Department, has said that the U.S. has "no better export." Former Secretary of Treasury, and former Harvard president Larry Summers, acknowledges that "exporting higher education" is a vital part of his own recommendations for encouraging economic growth.

While some international students gain financial assistance from U.S. universities, it is nowhere near the amount that is available to American students. More often than not the international students who study here pay full fare, or their governments pay a high percentage of their tuition costs, and that makes them highly desirable to schools.

Of particular interest, a full 35 percent of the advanced degrees these students seek is in STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math. Students pursuing degrees in STEM is good for the future of American business if -- emphasis added, they are allowed to remain in the U.S. once graduating. When these international students graduate we lose highly trained and valuable human capital. When they are sent packing to their home countries, they take potential businesses and the possibility of hiring Americans for those job openings with them.

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Take, Asaf Darash, an Israeli entrepreneur, who received his Ph.D. from University of California at Berkley in computer science. Darash founded Regpak, a company that helps organizations process online reservations. His skills attracted investors, clients, and created jobs. He hired 15 employees in San Francisco. When his visa was not renewed he had no choice but to leave the U.S., taking his talents and jobs with him.

The United States recently approved a series of reforms to the immigration codes, though fairly narrow in scope they may usher in a new era and enable many highly educated international students in STEM fields the ability to remain in the country once they graduate. But are the measures too little, too late?

More troubling is many international students are turning to other countries because of visa benefits. Take Canada, where over 100,000 international students from around the world come to obtain a high-quality secondary education. The United Kingdom has claimed 390,000 this past year. SEE These numbers are on the rise because of the competitive nature of visa programs aimed to allow students the ability to remain in the country after graduation, as well as offering visas to their families. This is troubling for the U.S. economy, as the number of immigrant start-ups is in decline, with entrepreneurs struggling to obtain a limited number of visas and green cards. The result: U.S. trained students leave and launch companies in other countries that offer perks to start businesses there.

See: Why a European Start-up visa makes sense

According to the Brookings Institute the United States is the "global hub" of higher education attracting 21 percent of all students studying abroad, but they caution that the number of international students is likely to diminish as uncertainty rises over the ability to remain in the U.S. once they graduate.

Brookings Report: America's Foreign Students and Immigration Reform

The current immigration policy hurts the United States. International students' spending helps boost the economy by supporting jobs and industries. A recent NAFSA analysis showed that in the 2012-13 school year, international students contributed 24 billion dollars to the economy. Not only do international students often pay full price for tuition, they also add to the economy by purchasing consumer goods and services.

NAFSA's International Student Economic Value Tool

Under the current visa system, if an employer wants to hire a foreign student to work in the United States, they are most likely to rely on the H-1B visa program, which permits work for up to six years after graduating. If an employer eventually sponsors an H-1B worker for a green card to stay permanently in the United States, the wait time can be longer than 10 years, especially for individuals from highly backlogged countries such as India or China. In 2010, only 26,502 of all new H-1B visas approved went to U.S. foreign students, of which 19,922 held advanced degrees from American universities. If legislation is passed to give green cards to foreign students who graduate with advanced degrees in STEM fields from American universities, the number of foreign graduates working in the United States could increase dramatically.

Perhaps one of the greatest values of highly trained international students is their potential boon to the growth of U.S. economy by creating new jobs as business entrepreneurs. Moreover, in a period in which educators, employers and politicians acknowledge the dire need for highly skilled people to fill STEM jobs. Research shows that foreign STEM graduates are proven job creators. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these highly trained students must leave the country once they complete their studies.

It was once said the cornerstone of a democracy is an educated electorate. Similarly, the cornerstone of a thriving economy is an educated workforce. The American economy is a smart economy rendering sophisticated products and services to consumers and clients the world over. The continued growth of this economy requires sophisticated employees trained in engineering, technologies and the sciences. For this reason, we should take steps as a nation to streamline immigration policy and practice for such individuals.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this blog post misstated the contribution of international students to the American economy. NAFSA research estimates the contribution was $24 billion during the 2012-13 academic year, not $25 million.