[...] America’s high-quality universities are among the key sources of its
greatness. Every year, top students from all over the world vie for access to graduate
and undergraduate programs in the US, and American universities occupy most of
the top spots in global rankings. Moreover, the basic research conducted at US universities
has been a primary driver of innovation and economic growth, as well as
the source of a disproportionate share of Nobel prizes.
America’s universities cater to1
a wide variety of students, researchers, and
other economic actors. The top research universities attract not just the best and
the brightest students, but also clusters2
of high-tech companies, such as those in
Silicon Valley and Boston. [...] With competition between public and private institutions
ensuring a high level of excellence across the board, higher education in the
US has long been a major export industry. According to Catherine Rampell of the
Washington Post, US “educational exports are about as big as [US] total exports of
, coal and natural gas combined.” With three times more foreign students
studying in the US than Americans studying abroad, the US higher-education sector
contributed a net surplus of around $34 billion to the US current account in 2017.
Foreign students’ attendance at US universities confers many advantages. For starters,
these students usually pay full tuition rates4
(especially at the undergraduate
level), which allows universities to allocate more financial aid for Americans who
need it. At the graduate level, more than half of those enrolled in computer-science
and engineering programs are foreign-born and could remain in the US to work.
Without them, America’s high-tech companies would face an even greater talent
than they already do.
Finally, the presence of foreign students enriches the university experience for
Americans themselves. And, as an added soft-power bonus, many foreign students
return home as staunch6
supporters of America, and can influence their country’s
foreign-policy positions accordingly.
Until 2016, the number of foreign students studying in the US had been rising, but
it then fell by around 3% in 2016, and by 6.6% in 2017. And initial reports indicate that
by another 7% in 2018. Part of this decline is probably due to the fact that
other countries have recognized the importance of hosting top-quality universities,
and are working harder to attract foreign students and retain their own. [...]
It has become harder to obtain a student visa, and foreign students already enrolled
in US universities have had to worry about whether they will be able to travel to and
from their home country. [...]
To be sure, there are also problems within the US higher-education sector itself.
Complaints about rising tuition and fees, for example, have been building for years.
What is often forgotten, though, is that the knowledge one gains from leading universities
has also become more valuable, particularly in fields such as biochemistry,
computer science, and environmental studies.
Put another way, one rarely hears complaints about the price of a Tesla compared
to that of a Ford, or about the price of a Ford today compared to that of a Model T
in the 1920s. Insofar as tuition costs have risen, a large part of it is almost certainly due to advances in knowledge, and thus the quality of a four-year degree8
. Just as a
car today is more valuable than one from 100 years ago, so, too, is a four-year degree.
As a partial solution, colleges and universities have increased their financial aid to
offset the “sticker price” (full tuition charges) for more students. In fact, some universities
now spend as much as half of their budgets on financial aid. But, again, the more
foreign students there are to pay full tuition, the smaller this burden9
[...] With other countries attempting to beef up10
their own universities, the US
should be increasing its efforts to attract foreign students. Doing so would cost the
US nothing, attract the talent its economy needs, and make higher education more US nothing, attract the talent its economy needs, and make higher education more
for more Americans.
“Trump’s Brain Drain”, Anne O. Krueger, Project-Syndicate.org, 2019.