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Study in the States

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano recently inaugurated a new website, Study in the States. According to the DHS, the site aims to “enhance our nation’s economic, scientific, and technological competitiveness” by attracting the “best and brightest” students from abroad, and encouraging them “to study and remain in the United States.” The “and remain” part of this sentence is interesting, and suggests a departure from the current policy, which is at best lukewarm toward students who wish to stay in the U.S. once their degree program has ended.

The site itself is promising, with links for students, schools and SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information Systems). There are also invitations aimed at prospective students abroad (Want to Study in the States, Start Here!), as well as information for students already in the country on maintaining their immigration status.

The website calls to mind the glossy recruiting materials that colleges use to entice prospective students. Scroll through the images on the site and you see the following: (i) Three young Asian women wearing huge backpacks stand chatting, presumably on their way to or from class; (ii) A classic photo of a college campus in fall, students sprawled on the verdant grass gazing at textbooks (golden and auburn leaved trees and a solid stone and brick building are in the background); (iii) A rear view of a young man wearing a tasseled mortar board and academic gown, standing in front of an equation-filled blackboard and raising his arms as if he has just lifted a bar bell above his shoulders (suggesting victory, it seems); (iv) Several young people seated against a stone wall looking at their phones (the caption reads “Follow Study in the States on Twitter!”); and (v) A photo of an American flag waving in front of an elegant granite building. Whether you are in Kansas City or Kolkata, Seattle or Seoul, Miami or Munich, it looks pretty good: Welcome to Campus USA!

The site is also an attempt by DHS to get with-it, and be more contemporary, interactive and youth-oriented (the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube icons are a giveaway here). This is a tough one, as the Department of Homeland Security is never going to be at the center of youth culture (one hopes). The site also presents a friendly face to prospective students, and unites in one place information on various programs and requirements. The real test will be on the back-end: how fast visas are issued, how easy it is to gain work authorization, and if it is possible for a student to remain in the U.S. once he or she has earned a degree.

Foreign students are extremely valuable for several reasons. On purely cultural grounds, they are gold. Foreign students expose their U.S. counterparts to the norms and values of other nations, building bridges in the process. Moreover, the U.S. no longer enjoys a stellar reputation abroad. Leaving aside for the moment why this might be case, it is to the United States’ advantage to turn this situation around. Invariably, foreign students who experience American life first-hand have much warmer feelings towards the U.S. than their compatriots without such contact. The U.S. as a country may be considered arrogant, and yet Americans as individuals are often warm and welcoming to foreigners. Spend a few years in any country, and you begin to appreciate its complexity, rather than reducing the country and its people to a stereotype. This type of cultural exchange is not quantifiable, but is extremely important.

What is quantifiable is the tuition paid by foreign students to a range of colleges, universities and other educational institutions. This pool of consumers includes everyone from a student who attends a 4-week intensive English language program on a U.S. college campus, to an undergraduate enrolled in a four-year degree program, to a master’s level student at a premier engineering school. Americans often get a discount off the tuition “sticker” price (particularly if they are locals attending a state school), while foreign students, particularly undergraduates, get few such breaks. The tuition paid by international students represents a valuable revenue stream for cash-strapped U.S. institutions.

Lastly, today’s foreign students, particularly Ph.D.s in the much coveted science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas, are tomorrow’s high-tech workers, innovators and job-creators. No need to import STEM grads, there are plenty of them currently studying at top U.S. schools. The Study in the States initiative seems to recognize this in stating that its efforts represent “an important step in empowering the next generation of international entrepreneurs right here in America.” The follow-through on these bold claims remains to be seen. While the STS site represents an encouraging sign regarding the value of foreign students to American education, society and economy, the current restrictive adjudication patterns of H-1B petitions, which is the most common step for international students after graduation, puts it in perspective.

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