STEM and Foreign Dollars

Dear All:

Once again, I am at a loss to shed any light on the much-anticipated H-1B visa rule changes. As of yesterday, they appear to be making their requisite bureaucratic rounds and are now at the Office of Management and Budget. Fingers crossed that what will eventually emerge will be something to celebrate.

Earlier this week, an article in Axios, College International Student Enrollments Plunge, caught my eye. The author related that:

“The big picture: U.S. colleges rely heavily on international students for their full tuition dollars and research prestige – most STEM programs have a majority of these students. Universities have already lost several revenue sources through athletics and housing.

  • The American Council on Education estimated a 25 percent decline of international student enrollment this fall and a $25 billion revenue loss for education institutions.
  • Schools don’t have an official count yet for their fall enrollments, but many say their international students have deferred until the spring.”

The article closed with:

“The bottom line: Educational institutions were already in a fragile state before the pandemic. Now this potential exodus endangers their pockets and prestige.”

Hrmm, prestige you say? Hardly! What colleges are bemoaning is not a loss of prestige, rather a direct hit to their bottom lines that these foreign students represent.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: Our higher education system is a racket! In much the same way corporate America is hooked on cheap labor that comes through employment visa programs like H-2A, H-2B, H-1B and the L-1, universities are hooked on foreign students coming in through the F-1 student visa program.

You read above where the loss of international students represents a $25 billion hit to our colleges and universities. Also mentioned was “most STEM programs have a majority of these students.”

I used to ponder why there were so many foreign students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). Is it that Americans are dumber when it comes to math? Or, perhaps it’s just that Americans would rather take up less lucrative careers in non-STEM fields? I think not. Let me posit that so many foreign students in STEM has less to do with acumen than it does a perverse incentive for international students to study STEM.

Let’s just say you wanted to immigrate to America and chart a path that would eventually lead to citizenship. How would you do it?

Well, you could enroll in an advanced degree STEM program at an American university. Then, upon graduation, be granted an optional practical training (OPT) work permit and work anywhere in America for three years. Then you could ask the company you are working for to sponsor you for an H-1B visa which is a dual-intent visa. The dual intent opens up the possibility of your employer sponsoring you for the much-coveted “GREEN CARD.” And voila! You’re on your way to becoming a citizen.

For some, that could almost be worth paying the full freight at Miskatonic University and maybe even spending a few harrowing years working as a post-doc in a lab at a research school. As we have all come to know, Principal Investigators (PI) love exploitable labor as much as the folks at Disney. As Nature magazine reported:

“The following was said to the study’s authors by a postdoc at a leading US university: ‘When I arrived at [the university] my PI explained to me that he approved my visa renewal … he then told me he was going to pay me 70 percent of the salary he promised before I got here … when I asked him if this is normal, he just asked me if I was serious about working [at the university].’”

And this came from another:

“Our PI creates this pressure cooker environment in our lab … you see the foreign postdocs sleeping on the floor of the labs, working 100-plus hours a week … PIs know what they are doing … they take advantage of these guys.”

If you think universities are screaming now, just wait until the OPT program disappears. Yes, it will mean a loss of revenue. But it will be an opportunity for them to right-size their program and price a degree so it is in students’ reach. And, the amount invested in an education will lead to a good upper middle-class life and not the poor house.

This will be the natural consequence of more billets in STEM programs and more job opportunities, like working as a postdoc in the lab of the university you just graduated from, opening up to citizens. That is what one calls a virtuous cycle, and America will benefit from this.

In Solidarity.