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Stemming the Outflow of STEM Degrees

Friday, May 4, 2012

What do other countries across the board envy most about America? Is it our freedom? Our high standard of living? Our power and influence around the globe?

No. What they actually admire most is our higher education. Taken as a whole, American universities – particularly its research universities – collectively outclass educational institutions around the globe with respect to their level of scholarship, discovery, and innovation. This is a primary reason why over 700,000 foreign nationals are currently enrolled in American higher education. China alone sends over 150,000, and India dispatches over a 100,000 as well to colleges and universities on our shores.

Many of these students come here to study science, technology, engineering, and math, a group of fields better known by their acronym, STEM. With U.S. companies reporting shortages of qualified STEM workers, it would seem natural that many of these international students would be an obvious pool for American businesses to draw from. However, as Jack Mollen, the Executive Vice President of Human Resources at computer titan EMC Corporation, recently pointed out in a piece for the Harvard Business Review, current U.S. immigration policy is forcing many of these gifted students to return to their native countries (

Mollen bemoans the fact that we educate this talent only to watch it return to their competing home countries because restrictive immigration policies leave these students no choice. He cites a discouraging 2009 study titled “Losing the World’s Best and Brightest,” which found that 70% of the respondents who participated in the study are very worried about obtaining a work visa to pursue employment here. In addition, 50% of the respondents from China and Europe expressed concern about the difficulties of obtaining permanent residence. Understandably, these students do not want to wait a decade or more to receive permanent resident status and the security that goes along with it of building a career here.

The study also notes that “foreign national students... are planning to leave the U.S. after graduation in numbers that appear to be higher than the historical norm as measured in STEM disciplines. A significant number of these students also say they intend to open businesses in the future.” These future innovators are also future entrepreneurs. Given the current state of the U.S. economy and its eroding stature as a center of innovation, we can hardly afford to lose these students to their home countries or other nations that will welcome them.

To remedy this problem, Mollen offers three steps the U.S. should take without delay, namely:

1. Offer expedited green card processing for foreign nationals who earn Masters degrees or higher in STEM fields from U.S.-based schools and who then accept positions with U.S.-based employers.

2. Provide an efficient avenue to bring in other key foreign talent from overseas subsidiaries to increase U.S. economic competitiveness.

3. Create a Trusted Employer Program for U.S. employers that maintain top internal compliance departments to ensure all immigration regulations are followed.

The question now is, can we stem the departure of STEM degrees before it is too late?

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