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Jill on the Hill: welcome back, what’s next?

US college and university campuses have spent the past few weeks busily welcoming students back to campus, including hundreds of thousands of international students who have returned to complete their degrees.

In the 2021/22 academic year, California was one of nine US states where financial contributions from international students exceeded $1bn. Last year, the 137,000 students contributed some $5.4bn. Photo: pexels

"Our nation would do well to allow those educated by our institutions to stay and contribute their knowledge and skills to our economy"

But unlike their American counterparts, international students who hope to apply their hard-earned knowledge and skills to work temporarily in the United States upon graduation must instead navigate an uncertain, complex and unwelcoming immigration system.

And while our outdated immigration laws impose barriers, other nations continue to improve their own immigration frameworks to compete for this talent.

Congress should update US immigration policies to allow those educated by our institutions to stay and contribute to our economy, not only to give international students a chance to gain practical experience to complete their education but also to meet the workforce needs of employers seeking talent.

International students bring significant benefits to our campuses and communities. They not only make our classrooms more global and diverse, helping to prepare our own students to meet global challenges and opportunities, but also represent a vital component of leading research, economic vitality and America’s reputation around the world.

The out-of-state tuition most of them pay helps to combat rising costs for US students. New numbers will be published by NAFSA this fall, but at last count, international students contributed $33.8 billion a year and created more than 335,000 jobs.

Nine states broke the $1 billion mark in economic contributions from these students (California, New York, Massachusetts, Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, Ohio and Michigan). These reports are also broken down by state and congressional district.

Impressively, these students from abroad pursue degrees in the United States primarily at their own expense. According to the most recent Open Doors report, more than half of all international students fund their education primarily through personal and family sources, and for undergraduate students, that number goes up to 83%. US government funding only comprises 0.2% of funding for international students.

Why is it so difficult for international students who invest so much in their US degrees to gain practical experience and work temporarily?

Given the significant benefits these students bring to our communities, one might think that the US government, like other countries, would have a proactive national strategy to attract and support them, and even more, to convince them to stay and work here after graduation.

Instead, our immigration system is governed by stringent and outdated policies that make it difficult for international students to choose the United States as a study destination in the first place and to transition into a more permanent employment-based immigration status after graduation.

“From the start, we signal to them that they are not encouraged to stay and work here”

First, until Congress updates US immigration law to include “dual intent” for international students, each individual applying for a visa to study in the United States must prove to the satisfaction of the interviewing consular officer that they intend to depart the United States immediately upon the completion of their academic program.

From the start, we signal to them that they are not encouraged to stay and work here. In contrast, other nations have adopted policies that welcome students to not only study but to work as well.

The specific limitations on work opportunities for international students in the United States begin during their first year of study when they are restricted to less than 20 hours of on-campus work. They continue as they face difficulties in participating in internships or practical training, culminating in the uncertainty of whether they will be able to obtain one of the very limited temporary work visas available to foreign nationals.

With a nationwide lottery of only 65,000 H-1B visas available annually for those with a bachelor’s degree and a mere 20,000 for those with advanced degrees, demand clearly exceeds supply. Surveys of students show concerns about career opportunities in the United States.

“Do you feel you were prepared for your career exploration in the US?” Students who did not feel prepared to explore career opportunities were worried about how hard it is to get a job or internship. Source: Interstride

Canada has been quick to take advantage of the United States’s inability to find ways to keep this talent with their “Tech Talent Strategy;” applications quickly exceeded the new 10,000 limit in less than 48 hours.

Stuart Anderson of the National Foundation for American Policy noted in Forbes: “The response is likely a warning sign to US policymakers that many highly sought foreign-born scientists and engineers in the United States are dissatisfied with the US immigration system and seeking other options. Canada may reopen the program and accept more applications if it finds not all applicants are approved and entered the country to work.”

Congress can fix this.

Our nation would do well to allow those educated by our institutions to stay and contribute their knowledge and skills to our economy. There is broad, bipartisan support for “stapling a green card” to the diploma of international students graduating from US colleges and universities.

Congress should create a direct path to green cards for international student alumni, eliminate the green card backlogs and prevent future backlogs. Priority should be given to those with PhDs, master’s, bachelor’s and associate’s degrees from US higher education institutions, and should represent the wide range of fields of study needed in our economy.

Congress should also strengthen Optional Practical Training so that these students can gain hands-on learning in the workplace upon graduation. OPT permits international students studying at colleges and universities in the United States on F-1 visas to pursue “practical training” with a US employer in a position directly related to their course of study.

Experiential learning through OPT is a key component of US higher education. The program allows students to supplement their higher education degree program with valuable practical training experience as they start their careers, as their domestic counterparts are able to do. Many competitor countries like Australia and Canada have similar programs that attract students away from the United States.

Moreover, the US Department of Homeland Security should issue guidance that makes it easier for international students to participate in internships and gain other practical work experience during their studies through Curricular Practical Training.

Last summer, the Senate held an important hearing on strengthening our workforce through higher education and immigration, and the Presidents’ Alliance, where I serve as a senior policy advisor, submitted extensive policy recommendations.

It’s time for Congress to adjust our immigration law to permit a smoother entry for work for skilled graduates of US colleges and universities. Doing so will benefit us all.

About the author: This is the third article in a series from Jill Welch. Jill is an international education policy expert with more than two decades serving in senior policy leadership positions both inside and outside of government, including the Hill, the Institute of International Education, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the U.S. Institute of Peace. She currently leads Out of Many, One, a consulting practice supporting nonprofit organisations in achieving inclusive, progressive, and bold goals that advance the democratic values on which the United States was founded. She also serves as Senior Policy Advisor for the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration

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