Foreign Students are the Key to Making D.C. a Global City

Neil G. Ruiz
Neil G. Ruiz Former Senior Policy Analyst and Associate Fellow - Metropolitan Policy Program

October 1, 2014

Millions of students are leaving their hometowns and heading to college campuses around the nation in the next few weeks. Out of these students, nearly one in 25 are making the trek from hometowns outside the United States. Their numbers have grown rapidly — from 110,000 in 2001 to over 800,000 in 2013.

Our nation is the global hub of academic training, hosting the largest share of all students studying abroad, 21 percent. My new Brookings report on foreign students examines how foreign students are a growing economic force in the United States, with huge potential to increase jobs and investment in three key ways.

First, in the short-term, foreign students inject a large amount of cash into local economies. Between 2008 and 2012, more than $35 billion was infused into metropolitan economies as a result of these foreign students, representing a huge services export. In Washington alone, foreign students spent more than $706 million on tuition and at least $480 million in living costs. Forty-four percent of these students were studying at University of Maryland-College Park, George Washington University, Georgetown University and Stratford University.

Second, these students possess key knowledge and serve as bridges to their hometowns abroad and their newly adopted homes in their school’s metropolitan areas. The majority of foreign students come from large, fast-growing emerging markets. In particular, Washington’s foreign students hail from fast-growing megacities: Hyderabad — the IT center of India; Seoul — the East Asian tiger city of South Korea; Beijing — the megacity of China; Mumbai — the center of commerce in India; and Shanghai — the Chinese business center. Students know the landscape of their vibrant hometown economies and are learning about the businesses in their newly adopted American hometowns while in school.

Third, our colleges and universities are educating the world’s business, scientific and political leaders of the future. Nationally, over two-thirds of foreign students are pursuing science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) or business degrees compared to 48 percent of all students. In the D.C. area, foreign students are pursuing degrees in demand by local employers, with over one-third seeking a business degree and another third pursuing a computer science or engineering degree. After graduating, however, only 53 percent of foreign student graduates from the region’s schools who received work authorization under the Optional Practical Training program stay to work for a D.C. employer between 12 months to 29 months.

If employers want to keep the American-trained foreign graduates longer than this period, they would have to compete for the limited 85,000 H-1B visas offered by the United States. This is becoming increasingly difficult because of high demand. This year, the H-1B quota was reached the first week they were offered in April.

The good news is that there is bipartisan agreement among national policymakers to allow foreign students graduates to skip the H-1B process and directly apply for green cards. The bad news is that Congress hasn’t finished its job of finalizing legislation for President Obama to sign — and it doesn’t look like it is going to get the job done any time soon.

While federal policymakers continue to do nothing about reforming our nation’s immigration system, metropolitan and state leaders can still take action. Local leaders should leverage foreign student connections with their home communities abroad to facilitate and deepen economic exchange with large foreign markets. Furthermore, local leaders can expand the pool of available workers with valuable STEM and business skills by connecting foreign student graduates to employers located in the school’s metropolitan area.

It’s time for local leaders to become truly global by realizing that foreign students studying in their regions are economic ambassadors connecting U.S. local economies to communities and networks around the globe.

This commentary originally appeared in The Washington Post.