New Study: Foreign Students no Longer Staying

The vast majority of foreign students studying at U.S. Colleges say they will head back home after they are done with their studies, and the economy is playing a part in that, according to a study released Thursday by UC Berkeley.

The results of the study show a complete reverse of past statistics, which historically have showed that the vast majority of foreign students stayed the rest of their lives in the U.S.

Most foreign nationals studying at universities in the United States say American higher education is the best in the world, but few plan to remain permanently in this country.

AnnaLee Saxenian, dean and professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information, said the research findings released Thursday offer a snapshot of students'intentions and reflect not just their desire to return to family and friends overseas, but also their feeling that there are better economic prospects abroad.

"Foreign students have a sense that the United States is closing down as a land of opportunity," said Saxenian, author of the book "The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy" (2006) and a landmark report, "Local and Global Networks of Immigrant Professionals in Silicon Valley," published in 2002 for the Public Policy Institute of California.

This is happening, she said in an interview, even though "the U.S. has long been a magnet for the best and the brightest from around the world, and even though we have benefited from many of these students - who are the cream of the crop - starting businesses that generate net wealth and expand opportunities for everyone."

Saxenian and her fellow researchers noted in their report that foreign nationals are represented disproportionately as co-founders of U.S. technology firms, including giants such as Google, Intel, eBay and Yahoo.

How they Came to Their Conclusions

For the new report, some 1,224 foreign nationals from India, China and Western Europe studying at U.S. universities and colleges - or who had graduated by the end of the 2008 academic year.

They were surveyed last October via the Facebook social networking site.

The students' fields of study primarily included engineering, business and economics, computer science and biological sciences.

Past surveys by the National Science Foundation of doctoral recipients in science and engineering showed that 92 percent of Chinese students intended to stay in the United States to work or conduct research for at least five years after graduating, while 85 percent of students from India intended to do so.

But the UC Berkeley study revealed a different picture. Among its key findings:

  •  While 58 percent of Indian, 54 percent of Chinese and 40 percent of European students want to stay in the United States for a few years after graduation, only 6 percent of Indian students, 10 percent of Chinese students and 15 percent of European students said they wanted to remain permanently.
  • Some 76 percent of Chinese students and almost 84 percent of Indian students said it would be difficult to find a job in their field in the United States.
  • Just 7 percent of Chinese students and 25 percent of Indian students surveyed said the best days for the United States economy lie ahead.
  • Approximately 74 percent of Chinese students and 86 percent of Indian students said their home countries' economies will grow faster in the future than they have in the past decade.
  • Most foreign students said innovation will occur faster over the next 25 years in India and China than in the United States.

Vivek Wadhwa, one of the authors of the report, said the numbers are alarming because foreign students comprise almost 60 percent of all engineering doctorates and more than half of all math, computer science, physics and economics doctorates awarded in the United States.

Saxenian said the shift in foreign students' attitudes is due in part to their increasing concerns about a diminished U.S. welcome to workers from abroad.

The government began what some foreign students called "overly aggressive" clamp-downs on foreign worker visas after 9/11 and has been made worse by economic tough times.

"That there is a pull factor from their home countries is natural and understandable," Saxenian said. "But historically, we have benefited tremendously from immigration, and this 'push' factor from the United States is distressing."

She cautioned against the United States throwing up barriers in today's global economy.

"The growth of the Indian and Chinese economies is good for everyone," she said. "The challenge for the U.S. is to preserve the economic dynamism and openness that has long made us a magnet for talented immigrants."

The study was authored by Saxenian and Wadhwa, along with economist Richard Freeman, the director of Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program, and Alex Salkever, a visiting researcher with Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.

The research was commissioned by the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation, a private, nonprofit foundation set up to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship.

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