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Foreign enrollments explain Obama's skills push

Foreign student enrollments for doctorates in math, engineering and computer sciences continue to grow

February 9, 2011 07:00 AM ET

Computerworld - WASHINGTON - In his State of the Union address late last month, President Barack Obama held out the promise of an easier path to immigration for foreign advanced degree graduates from U.S. universities.

Underscoring Obama's interest in foreign students earning advanced degrees are their sheer numbers.

According to research by Robert Hamilton, who works with NASA on a cooperative earth sciences project and studies immigration issues, less than 3,000 science and engineering doctorates were awarded to foreign students in 1980. Those students represented 16% of the total receiving such degrees, meaning that U.S. citizens earned 84% of science and engineering doctorates obtained in U.S. universities that year.

By 2005, though, 11,109 foreign students awarded doctorates in science and engineering, accounting for 38% of the total degrees in the field.

"These student pipelines to the United States appear to be facing growing competition from other nations desiring the best and brightest foreign students of the world," said Hamilton.

Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at The Brookings Institution, where Hamilton and other immigration experts presented their data, spoke favorably of policies that would give permanent residency, green cards, to foreign graduates of U.S. universities who receive advanced degrees.

"I would argue that economic benefits are huge," he said.

"We don't have the best device for picking who is going to be the Sergey Brin - who is going to end up starting Google," said West, "So you need to admit numbers sufficient to raise the probability of actually being able to find those people."

Similarly, Jennifer Hunt, a professor of economics at McGill University in Montreal, argued that skilled immigration can raise U.S. productivity, and that "more people are more likely to have more ideas."

But Lindsay Lowell, director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University, said he has an issue with rules that would automatically "staple" the green card onto the graduate degrees of foreign students.

Lowell said Australia tried a similar plan, and found that "students came to Australia to get landed status, not to study."

"Greater numbers will not necessarily yield you greater results," he said "You have to design the incentive structure right."

The H-1B visa is often cited as a path to permanent residency, but Ron Hira, associate professor of public policy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, presented data showing that few H-1B holders working for the large offshore firms sought green cards.

For instance, from 2007 to 2009, Infosys received approval for just over 9,600 H-1B visas. During that period, only 476 of the temporary visa holders, or about 5%, applied for permanent residency.

For some companies, like Microsoft, significant numbers of H-1B visa holders seek permanent residency. Of the 3,318 H-1Bs workers at Microsoft during that period, 67% applied for a green card.

Citing five-year profit margins of 20% or more at some offshore firms, Hira argued that the temporary visa is being used to deliver lower cost services. "If the goals are really to bring the best and brightest and keep them here, we need to look at this kind of data," said Hira.

Hunt argued that the benefits of offshoring have to be looked at in the overall context of the trade of goods.

"There really is no change in policy that you can make to the economy that improves everybody's well being, there are always going to be winners and losers," said Hunt.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter@DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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