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Even Without Immigration Reform Foreign Students at Record High

Students from Harvard Law School celebrate as they receive their degrees during the 361st Commencement Exercises at Harvard University

On Monday, the Institute of International Education (IIE) published its 2013 Open Doors report analyzing the international student population in the United States. The report shows that the country is experiencing a record number of foreign students studying at its colleges and universities.  In the 2012-2013 academic year, there were 819,644 foreign students in the U.S., up 7 percent from last year.  

Yet, as a previous Brookings report showed, the current immigration system makes it challenging to retain foreign students with only a fraction of them able to attain a temporary skilled worker visa after graduating. 

These new numbers coincide with International Education Week, a joint initiative between the U.S. Department of State and the Department of Education, aimed at promoting the numerous benefits of international education exchange.

This year International Education Week is occurring as chances for immigration reform dim. Yet, congressional leaders from both parties agree that foreign students are important to the U.S. economy and should be able to stay beyond graduation.

The Senate’s comprehensive “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” and the House’s SKILLS Visa Act would create an easier pathway for retaining foreign students that obtain bachelor’s degrees or higher at U.S. universities. In addition, several prominent business and religious leaders are advocating reform, arguing the importance of high- and low-skilled immigrants in sustaining America’s competitiveness. 

But these seem unlikely to be addressed either piecemeal or comprehensively.

To understand the potential local and national impacts of this legislation, the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program released an analysis last spring about America’s foreign student population. Numerous education leaders, and business and immigration reform supporters agree that foreign students are important to the national economy and to local metropolitan economies. In addition to bringing diversity to the United States, foreign students connect U.S. metropolitan areas with their global hometowns and offer insights into international business environments, regulations, and trade. Foreign students also contribute economically to U.S. metro area economies by paying $24 billion in tuition and living expenses in the 2012-2013 school year. Clearly, the international flow of people, knowledge, and skills, has a large financial impact.

Foreign students also have an outsized impact on smaller U.S. metro areas. Smaller metro areas in the middle of the country have the greatest number of incoming foreign students relative to their total undergraduate and graduate student population. The current visa system makes it difficult to retain these well-educated and highly-skilled students post-graduation. If immigration reform makes it easier for foreign students to stay and work in the United States, smaller metro areas could experience the greatest impact in terms of access to a new labor pool.

In early 2014 the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program will release an in-depth analysis of the geographic landscape of foreign students in the U.S. on F-1 visas using data not previously available. Perhaps comprehensive details about the foreign student population in the United States will help Congress understand how critical it is to reform the visa system to allow America to benefit from these highly educated and highly trained students.

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