How to Advance STEM Education for International Students in the U.S.: Key Insights from a WES Social Media Forum

How to Advance STEM Education for International Students in the U.S.: Key Insights from a WES Social Media Forum Lead image: Photo of a young computer science professional working remotely [1]

When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a directive in July revoking the visas of international students studying solely online, a coalition of tech companies that included Google, Facebook, and Twitter was quick to respond. Warning that the proposed rule would “inflict significant harm” on the United States tech industry, the companies urged [2] a federal court to reject the policy. They were especially concerned that the new regulation would jeopardize their ability to recruit international students trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and argued that “America’s future competitiveness depends on attracting and retaining talented international students.”

Although it was later rescinded, experts worry that the directive, along with other, similar policies, contributes to a political, regulatory, and social climate that threatens the ability of U.S. businesses and universities to attract and retain international STEM students. Given the importance of these students to “America’s future competitiveness,” World Education Services (WES) convened an online forum of international higher education experts to explore the U.S. socio-political climate and what it means for the future of international STEM students. Participants in the September 30 Twitter chat [3] discussed the unique challenges these students face, the important social and economic contributions they make, and the steps institutions can take to ensure that those contributions continue.

Below are the key topics, insights, and takeaways from the discussion:

1. If implemented, the proposed rule limiting international student visas would have far-reaching effects on international students in STEM fields.

On September 25, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) proposed another rule [4] aimed at overhauling the student visa system. This proposal would eliminate open-ended visas, which allow international students to remain in the U.S. until they complete their studies, and instead cap international student visas at two and four years. Students needing more time would have to apply for a visa extension. With research [5] revealing that less than half of first-time bachelor’s students complete their degrees within four years, the regulation is likely to impact a significant proportion of international students in the U.S.

The proposal would not only require that these students go through a costly and time-consuming visa renewal process, it could also very well mean that they would not be able to complete their studies if an extension isn’t granted. These considerations have experts worried [7] that the rule could lead to a sharp decline in international student enrollment. With nearly half of all international students in the U.S. pursuing a STEM education, according to IIE’s 2019 Open Doors report [8], STEM programs are likely to be hit hard.

How to Advance STEM Education for International Students in the U.S.: Key Insights from a WES Social Media Forum Lead image: Chart depicting international student fields of study [9]

But the rule would have its greatest impact on students at the doctoral level. Given that the average length of a doctoral program in the U.S. exceeds five years, most international doctoral students would need to apply for an extension.

If this rule drives international doctoral students away, its impact on U.S. research capacity could be considerable. International students accounted for 44 percent of doctoral STEM degrees issued in the U.S. during the 2016/17 school year, according to the Congressional Research Service [12]. And the majority—7 in 10, according to the National Science Board [13]—choose to stay and work in the U.S. after completing their doctoral studies.

The proposed rule would also impact participation in Optional Practical Training (OPT) and the STEM OPT Extension, forcing students and university administrators to manage both the OPT and extension of stay applications simultaneously.

2. OPT and the STEM OPT extension benefit both international students and the U.S.

OPT and the STEM OPT extension are key incentives for STEM international students. OPT allows them to work in the U.S. for up to a year in a profession related to their field of study. International students in STEM fields are eligible for the STEM OPT extension, which authorizes their employment for another two years. These programs allow international students to maximize the return on their educational investment, giving them an opportunity to gain important practical experience, establish their careers, and earn a salary. They can also provide a pathway to the H-1B work visa or permanent residency, allowing international students to remain in the U.S. longer.

The U.S. also sees tangible benefits from OPT and the STEM OPT extension. When STEM international students stay longer in the U.S., they help the country maintain its competitive and innovative edge in technology and science. Both programs are also important recruitment tools for colleges and universities facing fierce competition from international rivals.

3. The Trump administration’s America First policies send a message that international students are not welcome.

DHS’s proposal is not the only policy threatening OPT and the STEM OPT extension. In late October, ICE announced that it would revoke or refuse to renew the student work visas of more than 1,100 students on OPT because, ICE says, those students engaged in visa fraud. Miriam Feldblum, executive director of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, told Inside Higher Ed [43] that the action “shows a fundamental misunderstanding of [the] OPT program and betrays the values of international education more generally.”

The move was the latest in a series of actions and proposed policy initiatives aimed at limiting the ability of people born outside the U.S. to enter the country. From restricting H-1B visas to capping the length of time international students can remain in the U.S. on student visas, these policies have likely dampened the enthusiasm of international students to study in the country.

Although much could change after all the votes are tallied from this week’s presidential election, for many international students, these policies have likely already had a negative impact on their perceptions of the country. Despite the excellent reputation of U.S. higher education institutions, these policies may have even prompted some international students to look elsewhere [46] for a STEM education.

4. Less restrictive visa policies have helped other countries gain ground in attracting and retaining STEM international students.

While the U.S. is slowly shutting the door on international students, other countries, such as Australia, Canada, China, and the United Kingdom, have stepped up their efforts to attract global talent.

What do these countries have in common? In contrast to the U.S., they are easing immigration restrictions and investing in the recruitment of high-skilled international talent. Canada’s post-graduation work permit program allows international students to stay and work in the country for up to three years upon completing their studies.

In Australia, several visa categories allow international students to stay in the country after graduation. The most common one grants students 18 months to obtain work experience upon completing their studies.

In the U.K., a popular post-study work visa allows international students to remain in the country for two years after graduation to look for work. The government had dropped the program in 2012, but years of stagnating enrollment prompted officials to change course in September 2020. With policies in the U.S. expected to result in the loss of international talent to other countries, the effects of the U.K.’s decision to restrict post-study work opportunities may serve as a cautionary tale.

5. STEM international students help power the knowledge economy.

International students are vital contributors to U.S. innovation and technology. As of late 2018, former international students had founded nearly a quarter of all U.S. billion-dollar start-ups [64]. And as professors Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser note, the innovation ecosystem in the U.S.—from patent development to the cutting-edge research performed in labs—is dependent upon international students, particularly those in STEM fields. Lane and Kinser cite [65] a report from the Partnership for a New American Economy which found that international students and researchers contributed to the development of 54 percent of all patents issued to universities in 2011.

For U.S. employers, the benefits of hiring international STEM students are numerous: from ensuring diversity of thought in the workplace to addressing key workforce shortages and skills gaps. A study from New American Economy [71] found that for every 13 open positions requiring STEM skills in 2016, there was just one job seeker qualified to fill them. Since there are not enough qualified STEM employees in the U.S. workforce, international students and immigrants help fill this critical gap.

6. Colleges and universities must act to advance STEM education for international students.

What can be done to advance STEM education for international students in the U.S.? Despite international STEM students’ important contributions, restrictive student visa policy changes and proposals, coupled with the uncertainty and disruption wrought by the pandemic, have likely done much to discourage many students from studying in the U.S. However, potential solutions also surfaced during the Twitter chat.

International STEM students from all countries make up an increasing share of total students receiving STEM degrees at U.S. higher education institutions—they received 54 percent of all master’s degrees and 44 percent of all doctoral degrees in STEM fields during the 2016/17 school year [85]. These data points show that the U.S. needs to do more from a policy perspective to encourage international graduates to remain in and contribute to the country’s STEM fields. Put simply, these students are crucial to the present and future of the U.S. STEM-research infrastructure.

To boost enrollment and retention, college and university career services offices could also be doing more to advocate on behalf of STEM international students with employers, policymakers, and even alumni looking to hire talent. Career services offices need to not only promote the value of STEM international students to critical stakeholders, but also prepare students for the U.S. workforce by giving them information about employers that have a hiring track record.

Higher education institutions may also need to rethink and retool their approach to international recruitment and admissions to align with the approaches suggested below:

But no matter the level, whether nationwide or campus-wide, proposed solutions shared one common theme: the importance of projecting a welcoming image of the U.S. that attracts, rather than repels, international students. Accomplishing that will be critical not just for the future of U.S. higher education, but for the U.S. economy as well.

We acknowledge the following organizations and thank them for participating in our recent Twitter chat: