Some years ago, I quoted a university dean who was amazingly frank on why academia loves foreign graduate students (Computerworld, Feb. 28, 2005, emphasis added):
Most of the students enrolled in the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s graduate program are foreign nationals. The Newark-based school has so far received 208 applications for admission in computer science master’s degree programs next year, with about 165 of those applications from foreign students, said Stephen Seideman, dean of the school’s college of computing science. The foreign students “will do everything they can to stay here,” he said.
Anyone who has been an academic or a grad student knows this, but what was amazing is that the dean would “speak out of school” like that. But that is nothing compared to the comments in an ASEE Prism article by Beryl Benderly whom some of you may know of through her excellent work at Science Careers magazine.
The article, though mainly on Georgia Tech’s use of online instruction (on which, by the way, I’m a skeptic), there are some fascinating quotes that made Dean Seideman’s remarks look tame. Again, I use the word fascinating here not because the content is surprising, but rather because the man quoted is speaking so…well, loosely (emphasis added):
Nearly three quarters of the online students are Americans, with 26 percent international. In the much smaller on-campus program, 87 percent of students hail from overseas, most from India and China.
The divergence may reflect differences in motivations. For international students who “pay a huge amount” (over $30,000 for out-of-state tuition plus living expenses) to come to Atlanta, the “number-one goal is not the master’s degree, [but to] get into the U.S.,” Galil explains, noting that student visas are not granted for online programs. “If they could get in [otherwise], not all of them would pursue a master’s.” Studying in America has long been a key route into the U.S. labor market, particularly in the information technology fields, for foreign nationals, who can “explore opportunities” through Optional Practical Training and other programs, writes University of Michigan economist John Bound in a 2014 National Bureau of Economic Research paper. Indeed, nearly three quarters of Silicon Valley’s computer and math workers between the ages of 25 and 44 are foreign born.
(While it is possible to get an H-1B work visa with just a bachelor’s, for various reasons it is much easier with a graduate degree.)
The industry lobbyists have always made a big point of the fact a large proportion of U.S. tech graduate programs consist of foreign students, with the latter group earning about 50% of the doctorates and 30% of the master’s degrees. I’ve explained before that this is actually a consequence of the H-1B visa, which has impeded wage growth at the graduate level (more on this below). But my point here is that it is remarkable that the figure is near 90% at Georgia Tech, and there are other similar schools, such as Cal State East Bay, where not only are 90% of the master’s students foreign, but also are reportedly of very low quality. I have also noted other master’s programs that seem to have been created for foreign students.
But there is something much deeper in the GA Tech dean’s statement. The industry has implied that there is “something wrong” with American students for stopping at a bachelor’s degree rather than pursuing a master’s or even a PhD. For instance, Texas Instruments, in 2011 testimony to Congress in support of raising the H-1B cap, made such an argument. Here is how I reported it:
Yet, without fully realizing it, Texas Instruments V.P. for HR Darla Whitaker has now essentially admitted that all that “Johnnie Can’t Do Math” stuff was just slick PR. At the October 5 the House Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement hearing titled, “STEM the Tide: Should America Try to Prevent an Exodus of Foreign Graduates of U.S. Universities with Advanced Science Degrees?”, Ms. Whitaker stated that TI has plenty of engineering applicants with Bachelor’s degrees, and thus does not hire foreign workers at that level. She stated TI does hire H-1Bs, and sponsors them for green cards, at the Master’s and PhD levels, where she says there is a shortage. This naturally led one of the congresspeople on the committee to ask Whitaker, why don’t the American engineering students go on to grad school? She replied that she supposed that the American students were anxious to get out and start making money.
The fact is that for most tech jobs, one does not need a master’s degree. (As we all know, Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg, Ellison etc. never even completed a bachelor’s.) So the American students are acting quite rationally in foregoing grad study — and as Dean Galil explains so vividly above, the foreign students would forego grad study too if they could get work permits and green cards. In other words, there is “nothing wrong” with either group; both are acting in a manner consistent with the settings they deal with. But in the case of graduate study and foreign students, that manner is a consequence of U.S. immigration policy. Again, no surprise to people involved, such as myself, but quite startling to see the dean say it publicly.
Many of you will recall my frequent citing of the 1989 NSF internal memo that called for reducing wages at the grad degree level by bringing in a lot of foreign students. The memo also pointed out that the resulting stagnant wages would drive many of the domestic students away from graduate study. That is what has happened since then, and the comments by TI, Dean Galil, Dean Seideman and so on all converge in that context. In other words, the system was designed so that graduate degrees in tech would eventually become intended largely for foreign students, benefiting the industry with young, cheap labor and benefiting academia with workers who “will do everything to stay here.”
Since the foreign students are young, this then becomes the basis for the core role of H-1B, which is to enable employers to avoid hiring expensive older American workers. This came up in an ironic, “What goes around comes around” way in a 2010 CNN report. There, a Georgia Tech student, Christine Liu, noted that her Chinese-immigrant father could not get engineering work, because employers preferred to hire the young new Georgia Tech grads.
By the way, ASEE is the same organization that invited me to their annual deans council meeting to present regarding H-1B in February 2016.