Foreign Students in U.S.

Brain Drain Is Not Inevitable

“Brain drain” -- the migration of highly trained people from developing countries to wealthy ones -- has for decades depleted the most precious resource of the world’s poorest countries, their skilled and educated citizens. Yet this outflow of talent is not inevitable. Ending brain drain ultimately requires new development models that redress fundamental inequalities within developing countries and between the world’s poorest and richest nations. But as a first step, colleges and universities that recruit foreign talent -- and the foundations and agencies that support them -- can adopt new policies to help stem pervasive brain drain.

First, colleges and universities can direct educational opportunities to academically qualified, community-oriented leaders who would otherwise have limited opportunities for advanced study. For these leaders, the purpose of further study is to acquire the skills and knowledge to improve conditions in their home countries. Second, strong partnerships and collaboration can enhance resource sharing between universities and research institutions in rich countries and their counterparts in the developing world. This enables skilled graduates to find work at home while participating in international networks. And third, educators can take advantage of advances in information and communications technology to increase the impact and sustainability of such programs, since they are no longer limited by a zero-sum “brain-drain” vs. “brain gain” framework but are free to envision strategies that achieve win-win “brain circulation”. 

Two individuals who recently completed studies under the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program are showing that talented graduates who studied abroad can have an immediate impact on their home countries. Margareta Tri Wahyuningsih, from Indonesia, completed a master’s degree in gender and women’s studies at the University of Bradford, in Britain, in 2004 and returned to West Kalimantan, a province beset by traditional conflict and sporadic ethnic cleansing. In her current work as a field officer for an international NGO called Search for Common Ground in Indonesia, Margareta is training women to become mediators for peace.

Samuel Duo, a Liberian refugee who had fled to Ghana, completed a master’s degree in agriculture at Pennsylvania State University in 2005. Immediately after graduation, Samuel returned home to open a new office for the Social Enterprise Development Foundation of West Africa in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, to help rebuild his war-torn country.

Despite dedicated leaders like Margareta and Samuel, brain drain continues to weaken many developing economies. A comprehensive World Bank report  published in October concluded that brain drain increased significantly over the past two to three decades. The stock of educated immigrants in rich countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development rose by about 800,000 annually between 1990 and 2000. This exodus is a major loss for sending countries, especially the smallest and poorest in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean -- some of which have lost more than 50 percent of their educated citizens. Four out of five Jamaican doctors, for example, practice elsewhere, while sub-Saharan Africa has lost 20,000 professionals each year since 1990. More African scientists and engineers work in the United States than on their home continent. 

When educated people emigrate, they leave with skills and experience crucial to solving their countries’ critical problems. The migration of doctors leaves poor countries (and eventually other global population centers) subject to the ravages of highly communicable diseases. Public services are deprived of trained personnel, and countries lose revenue from some of their highest-earning taxpayers. Sending countries also lose educated citizens who otherwise might play key roles in developing responsive governments and organizing civil society, often resulting in political instability and regional conflict.

While some researchers have called attention to the net positive effects of “brain drain,” such as remittances sent home and possibilities for increased trade and foreign assistance, the negative effects are much stronger. Brain drain leads to a downward spiral of impoverishment and underdevelopment that drives educated people to seek better opportunities elsewhere.

Universities that recruit foreign students must adopt new strategies to reverse brain drain while maintaining a healthy circulation of global skills and knowledge. One promising approach is to direct international scholarships to deserving individuals for whom the support represents a unique opportunity to improve conditions in their home countries. Typically, prestigious scholarships are awarded to the “best and the brightest” students in poor countries. While academically capable, these students are usually from elite families that have access to high-cost private secondary schools and regard an international degree as an opportunity for individual advancement or a ticket to employment abroad.

Top colleges in the United States learned some time ago that admitting classes of American students from elite private schools did not truly identify the best talent, but while these institutions have become much more adept at identifying diverse applicants among Americans, they don’t do so for students from other countries. Yet more than half of all university students are now in the developing world, and there is a huge, nearly untapped pool of talented people from social groups that are just beginning to acquire postsecondary education. 

In developing countries, these first-generation university students are usually from poor backgrounds. They are women who succeed in overcoming cultural barriers against female advancement, or men and women from remote rural areas, ethnic and religious minorities, or people with physical disabilities. Having overcome poverty and discrimination to obtain their education, these students are highly motivated to return to their home countries after studying or working abroad. Their chief aspiration is to apply their newly-acquired knowledge to improve the very conditions against which they themselves had to struggle. And because they are deeply rooted in their communities of origin, their choice to live and work at home is a natural one. Since 2001, the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program has selected more than 2,000 fellows from nearly 100,000 applicants with this background and profile from Russia and 21 developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Among more than 550 alumni, 75 percent are now living and working in their home countries, while almost all of the remaining alumni are finishing doctoral degrees or pursuing additional advanced training under other sponsorship.   

Another effective way to redress the fundamental inequalities that lead to brain drain is to strengthen institutional partnerships, collaborative research and teaching, and other mutually beneficial exchanges between universities and research institutions in the United States (and other rich countries) and their counterparts in developing countries. Foundations, along with governments, universities, and the private sector, can support such initiatives.

One innovative example is Washington University in St. Louis’s “International Scholars Academy,” a program that promotes international cooperation among leading research universities with an initial focus on 15 universities in Asia. Another is the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa, a $350 million initiative sponsored by six of the largest U.S. foundations to strengthen higher education in seven African countries. Such collaborations help to build local institutions while fostering international connections, improving the capacity of developing countries to absorb their most talented graduates but also allowing them to benefit from global networks. 

Advances in information and communications technology and improved mobility have helped to shape a new global context for the world’s educated people. For those from poor developing countries, the choice is no longer as stark between emigration to a rich country or a life of intellectual isolation. For example, online access to scientific journals is improving rapidly, projects to digitize the world’s great libraries are well under way, and Internet cafes offer inexpensive access to online resources. In Africa, foreign donors, private companies and governments are investing heavily in satellite-based broadband capacity and new cell phone technology, opening Internet access and leapfrogging antiquated and dysfunctional telephone landlines. 

Further, the reduced cost of travel allows professionals to maintain their international ties by spending short periods abroad. Expatriates, for their part, are being invited by their governments and international agencies to work for limited periods of time in their home countries. Virtual travel can also connect professional communities abroad with local colleagues. This is the basis for literally dozens of initiatives like the Digital Diaspora Network Africa. Meanwhile, globalization has created a demand for skilled labor in regional development poles such as Brazil, China, India, and South Africa, as well as in rich western countries. The best brains can now circulate far more freely than even a decade ago. 

Taking advantage of this new reality, colleges and universities can help to right the imbalance of intellectual and economic resources that lies at the heart of the brain drain dilemma.

Joan Dassin
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Joan Dassin is executive director of the Ford Foundation International Fellowships Program.

The Argument Left Unsaid About Foreign Students

A friend of mine will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in public policy from Duke University this spring. He has had two competitive internships, high grades and has been an active force on campus. Finding a job will still be a problem. Why? Because he is an international student. “Unfortunately, I won't be eligible for this year's H1 (work permit) visa pool (given out by a lottery),” he told me. “That may mean I'll have to leave the country again for a short period of time. I am a Canadian citizen and so am trying to use that to my advantage but it could still get messy.” Even having a job offer from a top-notch company no longer provides any certainty in being able to work in the U.S. for many international students that come here from all across the globe, spending money, energy and years of their life to chase the “American Dream.”

According to the U.S. State Department, “U.S. law requires that most people who apply for nonimmigrant visas must provide evidence that they do not intend to immigrate to the United States.” A student visa is classified as a nonimmigrant visa and therefore all international students intending to study in the United States are required to prove to the consular officer in their country that they do not intend to remain in the United States after they finish their degrees.

American academic leaders talk a great deal about the importance of foreign students -- about how we bring expertise to academic programs, diversity and international perspective to campuses, and how we bring American values of democracy back home with us. All of those things are true, but it may also be time to end the silence with which both American academic leaders and foreign students pretend that many foreign students don’t want to stay in the U.S. after graduation and pretend that it makes sense to invest millions of dollars in students -- only to kick them out of the country before they can contribute to the U.S. economy.

A vast majority of my international student peers at Duke University desire to stay and work in the U.S. after completing their graduate degrees, at least in the short-term. The same is true for foreign students at most colleges in the United States. However they face a difficult quandary in trying to find a job. Most employers are looking for students with U.S. permanent residency or citizenship, but in order to obtain those, students need a job -- somewhat of a "chicken and egg" dilemma. A master’s of engineering management student student I know from Turkey was turned away at a recent career fair by several company booths by signs saying “U.S. Citizens only” or “International Students do not apply”.

“International companies ask for ‘only American Citizen’ applicants, which I find a little bit weird,” he said. This is an increasingly common occurrence at career fairs across the country, as work permit visas dry up extremely quickly and fewer employers are willing to sponsor an international student for a work permit, a laborious and expensive process. In a recent survey conducted by the International Student Concerns Committee of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students, preliminary results indicate that the main concern for an overwhelming majority of international students is employment upon graduation.

An international graduate who wished to remain anonymous had this to say about the difficulties he is facing despite working at a prestigious financial firm. He did not get a work permit visa in the visa lottery, which is how these visas are given out. He said, “The whole process of applying for a [work] visa and the massive amounts of paperwork, the heartache of never being sure what's going to happen, and the fact that I don't know where I'm going to be even three months from now, quite frankly, is a pain. I think I am accretive to society and I deserve better.”

Obviously international students see the anti-immigrant movement that has so much influence in American politics today. Most of this is meant to target illegal immigration but also ends up affecting legal immigrants such as international students, who fill in huge reams of paperwork and jump over many hurdles to maintain their legal status. And international students know that immigration can be a sensitive issue -- as it is in some of our home nations. But other countries are not so quick to turn away those most likely to help their economies.

Canada, Australia and Britain are all countries with a point-based system that awards potential immigrants based on their education, time in the country and so on that enables them to obtain permanent residency. This includes students, and does not usually require an employer to sponsor a student through this process. As students around the world decide where to go for their higher education, these countries suddenly appear more attractive when the prospects of staying and working after graduation are considered.

So why should we be concerned about international students at all? As we trend towards a knowledge-based economy, it is imperative that we remain competitive in the global marketplace. More and more professions now require graduate degrees. According to a study by the Institute of International Education, at the end of 2005, there were 565,039 international students studying in the United States, contributing $13.3 billion to the economy -- just in tuition and living expenditures. Of these students, 48.6 percent were graduate and professional students, who additionally contribute by teaching courses, conducting research for professors, and going on to become key contributors in driving the knowledge-based economy. Due to more aggressive recruitment by other countries, difficulties in getting visas, and hurdles to being able to stay and work after obtaining their graduate degrees, many foreign graduate students are leaving the United States to work in other countries. This is a vital loss to the U.S. economy and undermines America’s competitive edge.

A recent study by Vivek Wadhwa, executive-in-residence at Duke University, showed that the percentage of foreign nationals contributing to U.S. international patent applications -- the ones that give the U.S. a global edge -- increased 331 percent in 8 years. Allowing these foreign nationals to stay in the U.S. will immensely increase the country's edge in science and technology. According to a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation study, “more than half of the foreign-born founders of U.S. technology and engineering businesses initially came to the United States to study as international students. They typically founded companies after working and residing in the United States for an average of 13 years.”

Immigrant entrepreneurs that come here as international students, start businesses that generate American jobs and tax revenue and maintain the competitive edge of the US in the global economy. According to another study by the foundation, "more than one million skilled immigrant workers, including scientists, engineers, doctors and researchers and their families, are competing for 120,000 permanent U.S. resident visas each year, creating a sizeable imbalance likely to fuel a “reverse brain-drain” with skilled workers returning to their home country.”

If American universities and American politicians want to help higher education and the economy, it’s time to move beyond just lobbying to get foreign students into the country for a few years – but to talk about why it makes sense to welcome many for their careers.

Gautham Pandiyan
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Gautham Pandiyan is a Ph.D. candidate in molecular biology at Duke University and is chair of the International Student Concerns Committee Chair of the National Association of Graduate and Professional Students.

Bottom (Line) Feeders

A specter is now haunting international higher education — the dramatic proliferation of third-party recruiters and agents. Their job is to recruit prospective students in countries that send large numbers of students abroad to study at specific institutions as well as to provide general information about studying abroad. Many officials are authorized by academic institutions in the receiving countries — specifically in the United States, Britain, and Australia — to offer admission to students and to help them enroll. (The agents and the colleges that hire them all say that the college still controls admissions, but effectively the reality is that the agents are making offers.)

While by no means a new trend, this phenomenon is growing in size, scope, and notoriety, as international enrollments have become a compelling part of some universities’ bottom lines. The operators, of course, do not work without any source of income. They are paid by the universities that utilize them, usually by providing a fee, based on how many students are enrolled. Sometimes, shockingly, they are also paid by prospective students.

Agents and recruiters are impairing academic standards and integrity — and it’s time for colleges and universities to stop using them. Providing information to prospective students is fine, but money should not change hands during the admissions process, and universities should not hand the power to admit — after all, a key academic responsibility — to agents or entities overseas.

Old Ways and a New Wave

Thirty years ago, most students interested in studying abroad would locate information, apply to their preferred institutions, and enroll. In the days prior to the Internet, information could be obtained directly by writing to overseas universities or in some cases by going to libraries sponsored by embassies and information centers in major cities in the developing world supported by the main host countries — the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the United States. Internationally mobile students (those who enrolled for credit in another country) were relatively few in number. In 1981, there were 912,300 internationally mobile students — the total has grown by 3 times in the past 30 years. Many students came from relatively sophisticated families able to access information and make informed choices or were sponsored by governments or other agencies. Universities in host countries seldom placed internationalization at the top of their agendas, and few, if any, looked to make money from overseas students. Cold War politics and neocolonial ties stimulated the major powers to sponsor information centers overseas.

This environment has changed. Indeed, practices only a few decades old seem quaint in today’s globalized world, where higher education is big business for many and perhaps 3 million students study abroad — the large majority coming from Asia and going to the main English-speaking Western countries and Australia. The United States hosted 671,000 of these foreign students — or 21 percent of the global total. These students contributed more than $17.65 billion to the U.S. economy and many billions more to the other main host countries.

The key shifts include the rise of the Internet, the commercialization of international study, and the transformation of study abroad from an elite to a mass phenomenon. While formerly limited mainly to an elite few, participating students were often provided with scholarships from home or host countries. International study is now a mass phenomenon where funding comes overwhelmingly from individual overseas students or their families, and the students themselves come from much wider social-class backgrounds and from many more countries than was the case in the past.

The Internet permits easy access to information concerning higher education institutions everywhere, although even a cursory glance at the websites of many universities reveals a striking lack of transparency that even borders on false advertising. Even degree mills can be designed to look like Oxford — sometimes even stealing pictures of Oxford. But good information is available to individuals who have the ability to carefully separate fact from fiction — not an easy task.

The Cold War ended by 1990, and most host countries have eliminated or cut back their overseas information centers. Some, like Australia, have purposely commercialized international student recruiting. The Australian government established the IDP agency to build higher education as an export industry. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, have moved to commercialize international higher education.

At the same time, the United States has repeatedly cut the budgets for overseas libraries and information centers without thinking about the consequences and now faces the costly investment of reopening centers and libraries and rebranding and remarketing one of America’s most valuable "exports."

As the number of overseas students has grown, the level of sophistication of the applicants has declined. At one time, fewer applicants were in large part interested in top universities overseas, although some government-sponsored programs placed students in less prestigious institutions. However, many of today’s potential students have little knowledge about higher education prospects and may want to study abroad because they cannot find access at home. Moreover, they feel that somehow an overseas qualification will boost their job prospects or serve as a prelude to migration abroad.

Many more academic institutions have entered the competition for international students. Most of these new entrants are not top "name brand" universities but are rather lesser-known — and sometimes lower-quality — colleges and universities of all kinds. These schools turn to recruiters since they feel that they have no alternative way to attract students from other countries. It is surprising that some quite respectable American universities have turned to agents and recruiters—perhaps feeling insufficient confidence that their quality and brand could attract overseas students. Top-ranked universities remain preferred destinations for the best and brightest students, but they can accommodate only a tiny minority of those who apply.

Agents and Recruiters Enter

This new environment produced an information and access vacuum that needed to be filled. Unfortunately, this deficiency has been accommodated in the worst possible way. Many universities, especially those with no international profile, seeking to attract international students find that they cannot easily obtain access to the potential market. Students find it difficult to locate reliable information about possible places to study amidst the thicket of competing web sites and the myriad of advertisements that one can find in newspapers, train stations, and elsewhere in the developing world.

The Internet has not solved the problem in part because it does not distinguish quality and provides unevaluated and unfiltered information. There is no way to easily evaluate the quality or veracity of information. Agents and recruiters have stepped into this environment of information overload and claim to provide a road map to the plethora of “information” currently available on the Internet and elsewhere.

The Actual Practices

If agents and recruiters only provided information, today’s situation would not amount to a crisis. It would simply be problematic because the evaluation of the information would still be questionable. They are, of course, hired chiefly by potential host universities and other higher education providers to attract students to their institutions. Not information providers, the agents are salespeople. Their purpose is to sell a product, and they can use any required methods.

They do not present alternatives or provide objective guidance to the potential applicants. Many of these operators — although it is not known how many — have authorization to actually admit students, often based on murky qualifications. Some of the least-scrupulous agents accept payment from both sides — their employing school or schools in the host country, as well as from the applicants — a clear violation of ethical standards. Most agents and recruiters are independent operators who have contracts with one or more overseas institutions. The universities in the host countries that employ these personnel typically are the less-prestigious schools with little visibility overseas and often a tremendous financial need for foreign students to balance their own "bottom lines."

American federal law forbids payments to recruit domestic students. Thus, one wonders why it is appropriate, or even legal, for a university to pay agents to bring them international students whereas not domestic students.

Agents and recruiters have no stated qualifications, nor are they vetted by anyone. Efforts are now underway to create "standards" for this new "profession" but with no powers to either measure compliance or discipline violators. Organizations like NAFSA-Association of International Educators, the largest membership organization of international education professionals, accept these operators as members with no questions asked, thus giving an aura of respectability to them. Other groups, such as the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, have raised serious inquiries about their role. Current efforts to set standards and somehow “legitimize” agents and recruiters through a new organization called the American International Recruitment Council may be seen as too closely linked to them.

The Solution

The solution to this growing phenomenon with agents is simple: abolish them. Agents and recruiters have no legitimate role in international higher education. They are unnecessary and often less than honest practitioners who stand in the way of a good flow of information to prospective students and required data about these students to academic institutions in the host countries.

Objective and accurate information and guidance are needed for both institutions and students. These sources can be provided through the Internet, preferably through Web sites with some “seal of approval” from a group of respected universities or an international or regional organization that has universal credibility. It would be helpful if countries that eliminated or cut back on information centers and libraries overseas could restore them. The cost is not high and the yield in good will and reliable data would be immense. A significant role may exist for independent consultants who provide information and prepare students for the application process overseas but have no links and receive no money from the universities. Actually, a new organization, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants, has been founded to establish and enforce appropriate standards relevant to this new role.

Universities in the host countries should immediately cease using agents and recruiters. Better and more useful information should be provided by universities themselves to more effectively inform prospective applicants. This goal may include visits by university admissions staff to potential students overseas for the purpose of information sharing.

The stain of commercialization in international higher education has been tremendously aided by agents and recruiters. It is high time that these operators are eliminated and replaced with open and transparent ways of providing information to prospective students. The admissions process should be put back where it belongs — students applying for study and colleges and universities choosing those best qualified — based on reliable individually submitted applications.

Philip G. Altbach
Author's email:

Philip G. Altbach is the Monan University Professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. He is also a co-editor and frequent contributor to "The World View," a blog at Inside Higher Ed.


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