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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University December 5, 2005 | Vol. 35 No. 13
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

American Must Fight for Foreign Students

On a recent trip to Singapore, I had the opportunity to meet with Phillip Yeo, the powerful chairman of the country's Agency for Science, Technology and Research. I was surprised in the midst of our conversation when my host jumped up, walked over to a blackboard and without notes wrote out a detailed summary of the numbers and nationalities of foreign-born students in his country. But in retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised at all.

Singapore actively recruits the best and brightest students from many countries to attend its world-class universities. In exchange, officials require those students to remain and work in Singapore for a specified number of years and encourage them to stay permanently to contribute to the nation's high-tech future. Thus, for Singapore, the number of incoming foreign students — like the balance of trade or the currency reserves on hand — is considered a key economic indicator. They are another measure of the nation's economic security and future productivity.

In recent years more and more nations have begun to recognize that advanced education in science and technology is a vital economic commodity. Some nations — such as Singapore, Canada and Germany — are pursuing a policy of "skilled migration" by luring exceptional students to their universities for advanced study and then encouraging them to stay. Others, like Australia and New Zealand, are primarily encouraging foreign students as a means of generating additional revenues. Meanwhile, developing economies, and in particular India and China, are making huge investments in their universities to keep their finest students at home and build a more educated work force.

In the United States today, our system of higher education performs all three of these tasks. Foreign students generate significant revenues, contributing more than $13 billion to the U.S. economy annually. Foreign students also bring critically needed skills into our country, accounting for nearly half of all graduate enrollments in engineering and computer science at American universities. And many of them stay permanently: Foreign-born scientists make up more than a third of engineering and computer science university faculties, and nearly the same portion of our science and engineering work force.

Finally, foreign and American students together help fuel our university-driven leadership in science and technology, which has made us the world's economic superpower.

The trouble is, in our radically new interconnected world, we are not giving any serious thought to which of these three functions is most important to our nation's future.

Not to ignore our homegrown talent, but the future skills and the future jobs in information technology are no longer a driving interest among students. At Johns Hopkins this year, only 4 percent of our freshmen are interested in studying computer science and computer engineering. Also, our engineering school enrollment in these areas has been falling significantly during the past few years. In fall 2001, there were 266 declared computer science majors, but only 206 in 2002, 163 in 2003 and 120 this year.

From where I sit, the answer is clear. We must recognize, like Singapore, that we are now in a global competition for high-tech talent, and that talent knows no national boundaries. While we make every effort within to leave no child behind, we need also look without and continue to welcome the best and brightest young minds to our shores — they, too, are part of America's future.

Tens of thousands of bright students who used to come to America to study science and engineering now have many other options. Last year, foreign applications to American graduate schools declined 28 percent, and actual foreign graduate student enrollments dropped 6 percent — the third year in a row to see a decline.

Some of the decline can be attributed to post-Sept. 11 American visa policies that are reversing decades of openness to foreign scientific excellence. And unfortunately, once students are here, we have no coherent policy of trying to keep them. Incentives to encourage the best and brightest students to stay might include extending visas to immediate family members, coordinating career planning and placement or establishing campus mentorship programs among faculty and students, thus encouraging students to grow roots and remain.

In the new global economy, American competitiveness depends upon an ample supply of the brightest minds, from home and abroad. It's time to make bringing them here — and keeping them — a national priority.


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University. He wrote this article for The San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News.


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