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Threats to OPT “dampened appeal” of studying in the US

Policies that make the immigration system difficult to navigate for international students in the US “have dampened the appeal and opportunity to study abroad in the country”, according to a new report from the American Council on Education.

ImmigrationThe confusing and stressful immigration system is taking a toll on students' desire to remain in the US. Photo: Unsplash

“40% of high-skill semiconductor workers in the US today were born overseas"

“The previous administration was talking of rescinding OPT, which is one of the few avenues a lot of international students have here to stay in the country post-graduation, and there was a lot of unwelcome messaging,” said Anna Esaki-Smith, author of the report.

“There was a lot of unwelcome messaging”

While the Biden administration has had more welcoming messaging, she said, there is yet to be significant changes in policy. A lack of consistency between administrations with regards to immigration and visa regulations for international students could also lead to students not wanting to take the risk to study in the US.

This was seen in the summer of 2020 when new US guidance barred new students studying entirely online from entering the US. While the order was rescinded, “it left many confused and put off”, she said.

The effects of the pandemic has further exacerbated declines in student enrolments.

The beginning of the fall 2020 academic semester saw a decrease of 16% compared with 2019, while the total number of new international students fell by 43%. A diminishing appeal of the US could have devastating effects on the US’ competitiveness in fields such as AI and superconductor manufacturing, the research suggested.

Previous studies have found that while 80% of international AI PhD graduates remain in the US, a third of those who leave consider the immigration process to be a “significant factor” in their decision, while a majority of those who remain reported “experiencing heavy difficulties with the US immigration system”.

For the superconductor industry, “40% of high-skill semiconductor workers in the US today were born overseas, as were two-thirds of graduate students in semiconductor-related programs at US universities”.

Leading chip manufacturer Intel estimated that without OPT it would only be able to hire 30% of its current highly-skilled graduate workforce.

“There are a lot of efforts to provide more outreach to more students and more diverse groups of students but that has to be done at a primary school level. It’s going to take time to enact change,” said Esaki-Smith.

“We can’t wait for the fruits of these efforts to be realised.”

The US also has to contend with the increasing appeal of other destinations, as well as changing nature of employment markets in the home countries of its international students, some of which have become much more attractive over the last two decades.

“In the early 2000s, only one or two of every 10 Chinese students studying abroad returned home after graduation,” said the report.

“According to a National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (2014) report, 86% of Chinese science and engineering doctoral students planned to stay in the US upon completion of their degrees.

“However, by 2017, the Chinese government reported 82.3% of those who studied abroad [including outside the US] returned to China that year.”

Other studies have also pointed to changes in the preferences of local employers. The prestige of being a “sea turtle” – an overseas returnee – is fading among both the public and employers as Chinese universities become more globally recognised.

“Not that long ago, a Chinese student would go to the US because the job prospects were more attractive”

“Not that long ago, a Chinese student would go to the US because the job prospects were more attractive. These days it could be better back home,” said Esaki-Smith, although she noted that there is still a strong interest in studying abroad – building international networks and improving English skills being two major motivational factors.

“As much as the landscape has changed, the things you can get from [studying abroad] hasn’t changed.”

The report, which was written during the transition period between the two administrations, concluded that “the new US administration signals a sea change in government policy and legislation that offers some respite to the beleaguered higher education sector, but it will take time for perceptions to change”.

“Competitor nations that have shown a friendlier face in recent years will continue to attract students who have been put off by recent insular policies.

“US institutions will continue to attract international students, but it will take thoughtful and purposeful actions by colleges and universities, as well as policymakers, to restore the US as the destination of choice.”

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