The Case For Aligning US Higher Education and Immigration Policy

America’s higher education system is one of the best in the world, giving countless numbers of students the opportunity to learn under the tutelage of some of the most brilliant minds of the modern era.

Under the mentorship of distinguished professors and colleagues, the United States empowers and encourages students from around the world to pursue research that leads to improvements in technology, medicine, engineering, mathematics, and beyond.

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Why, then, are we sending legal immigrants, along with our investment of time, money, and resources, out of the United States following their academic program completion?

The Prestige of the United States Higher Education System

Universitas 21, a research firm with a sole focus on ranking universities around the world, has ranked the United States higher education system as #1 in the world, with a score of 100%. It is followed by Switzerland, with a score of 88%. American higher education breaks the curve, ranking 12 percentage points higher than the next runner up.

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These rankings are based on 24 indicators grouped into 4 “modules,” as defined by the U21 Ranking of National Higher Education Systems, 2019. The total possible score is 100%, and is calculated as follows:

Resources:

‘Resources’ encompasses the government and private expenditure dedicated to tertiary learning institutions. This accounts for 20% of the overall rank. The United States ranked 8th, with a 91.5%.

Environment:

‘Environment’ encompasses the policy environment, including financial and academic autonomy, transparent external monitoring of performance, and where policy settings foster diversity and competition between institutions. This accounts for 20% of the overall rank. The United States ranked 1st, with a 100%.

Connectivity:

‘Connectivity’ encompasses the system’s connectedness with the rest of the nation’s society and its international links in education and research. This accounts for 20% of the overall rank. The United States ranked 11th, with a 77.8%.

Output:

‘Output’ encompasses research output and its impact, student throughput, the national stock of graduates and researchers, the quality of the nation’s best universities, and employability of graduates. This accounts for 40% of the overall rank. The United States ranked 1st, with a 100%.

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Welcoming legal immigrants into our institutions of higher learning enriches and educates them. We provide the resources, mentoring, and financial assistance needed for these immigrants to grow in their field. In return, they provide new insights and creativity that simply isn’t available without the contributions of other cultures. Together, legal immigrants and American citizens work together to conduct research that impacts the nation and the world.

The F-1 Academic Study Visa: An Investment in Our Future

The F-1 academic study visa allows legal immigrants to enter the United States with the intent of enrolling in an American educational institution. This visa is available for enrollment in university or college, high school, private elementary schools, seminary, conservatory, and other academic institutions, including language training programs.

The school must be SEVP-approved (Student and Exchange Visitor Program), and students must be interviewed and approved prior to enrollment. Spouses and children are allowed to come with the student to the United States, but must also enroll in SEVIS (Student and Exchange Visitor Information System) and be approved for a visa. It also stipulates that holders must leave the United States within 60 days of completion of their academic program.

In 2017, the US issued 393,000 F-1 academic study visas. This represents a nearly 39% drop in F-1 visa issuance from the recent-year high in 2015.

The Problem with the F-1 to H-1B Gap

For comparison, only 85,000 H-1B visas are issued for for-profit companies each year—a limit that has not been revised since 2005.

The H-1B program allows companies in the United States to “temporarily employ foreign workers in occupations that require the theoretical and practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge and a bachelor’s degree or higher in the specific specialty, or its equivalent.” These occupations typically cover fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but may spill over into teaching, and in some cases, fashion modeling.

In effect, we are educating the world’s best and brightest, then telling 78% of the immigrants among them to take these highly specialized skills and extensive field knowledge out of the United States. For 2017 alone, this represents more than $246 billion lost in future government revenues. All in all, our current immigration policy costs the government one trillion dollars in future revenues every four years, due to loss of technical skill in fields that are often filled by specialized legal immigrants.  

Bridging the Gap

The net fiscal contribution of a new immigrant and immigrant children over a 75-year period is positive. Well-educated immigrants provide an even larger positive impact, due to the United States progressive tax system, in which more contributions are drawn from those who are highly educated.

Additionally, “Today’s immigrants have more education than earlier immigrants and, as a result, are more positive contributors to government finances.” The Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis estimates that an immigrant with a college degree contributes around $800,000 to the government over their lifetime.

With the proposed IDEAL immigration policy, highly educated and highly skilled legal immigrants would be welcomed into the United States to work for employers willing to invest in America’s future. At the end of 10 years, subject to an immigration court review, immigrants who maintain proper legal and employment status over this period will be granted permanent residency, and the chance to become an American citizen. In this way, our investment in the education and employment of legal immigrants would pour $70 billion annually back into additional border security and immigration enforcement efforts, job-creating infrastructure projects to build and repair bridges, roads, hospitals and schools across the country, and mandatory E-Verify employment verification systems nationwide.