When it comes to STEM fields -- science, technology, engineering and math -- American universities truly set the gold standard. STEM graduates of our universities are behind many of the innovations and new businesses that are part of our present and future economic growth.
Talented students from around the world contribute to the graduate STEM programs of our universities. In 2009, foreign students received nearly 4 out of every 10 master's degrees awarded in STEM fields and about the same percentage of all doctorates.
These students have the potential to come up with an invention that could save thousands of lives or jump-start a whole new industry. They also have the ability to start a company that could provide jobs to tens of thousands of American workers.
But what happens to these foreign students after they graduate? They are in great demand by the universities themselves and by American industry. That is why more than 6 out of every 10 science and engineering doctoral graduates from 2002 were still here in 2007.
However, our immigration system does not always put American interests first. We have the most generous level of legal immigration in the world. Yet we select only 5% of our immigrants based on the skills and education they bring to America.
Many people make a compelling argument: Why don't we simply offer a green card to any foreign student who graduates from a U.S. university with an advanced STEM degree and wants to stay in the U.S.? After all, why would we want to educate scientists and engineers here and then send them home to work for our competitors?
But we should keep several points in mind. First, all graduate degrees are not the same. It takes an average of over seven years in graduate school for STEM students to receive a doctorate. A master's can be earned in two years.
And when it comes to the proportion of persons who have applied for patents, those with doctorates far outpace those with bachelor's and master's degrees. Sixteen percent of scientists and engineers with doctorates working in STEM fields have applied for patents, compared to only two percent with bachelor's degrees and five percent with master's degrees.
Second, a visa "pot of gold" could create an incentive for schools to aim solely to attract tuition-paying foreign students with the lure of a green card.
As the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Visa Services at the State Department has warned, "A school in the United States can be found for even the poorest academic achiever Unfortunately, schools that actively recruit foreign students for primarily economic reasons, and without regard to their qualifications or intentions, may encourage such high-risk underachievers to seek student visa status as a ticket into the United States."
And the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings warns against "inducing the enrollment of poor-quality foreign students in U.S. higher education institutions simply to obtain green cards "
This is not just a hypothetic concern. Australia's experience should be instructive. One study found that: "The reformers did not anticipate the alacrity with which Australia's universities . . . would set up courses designed to attract international students looking for the cheapest and easiest ways to obtain qualifications in occupations that could lead to permanent residence . . . [C]oncerns about the quality of instruction in universities . . . and about the extent to which students were basing their choice of educational provider on the likely permanent residence outcomes, spread into the mainstream media. The result was a popular image that the industry was about selling education for visas. This perception was shredding its credibility."
However, the choice between sending all graduates home and automatically issuing visas to students are not the only options available.
In 2009, foreign students earned about 11,000 doctorate degrees in STEM fields from U.S. universities. With tweaks to our immigration system, we can accommodate those graduates whom American universities and businesses most desire and who are most able to contribute to our economy.