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Foreign-born Scholars: At the Head of the Class

Friday, October 14, 2011

Visit any science or engineering department at a major U.S. research university and you will quickly notice that a large percentage of the Ph.D. students, post-docs and faculty are foreign-born.

The United States is a magnet for talented international scholars, particularly in the sciences. This is for good reason, as according to the most recent Times Higher Education World University Rankings of 400 universities worldwide, the top globe’s three post-secondary institutions are Caltech, Harvard and Stanford, with Princeton, MIT, the University of Chicago, UC Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, UCLA and Johns Hopkins also placing in the top 15.

U.S. universities are like Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League; they are based in the U.S., but attract “players” from around the globe. Nowhere is this more true than at the nation’s elite research institutions. The relationship is mutually reinforcing: top foreign scholars are drawn to elite American institutions, and their presence at these universities further improves the caliber of U.S. scholarship. The very large presence of foreign-born scholars on U.S. campuses may be changing the way we think of an “American” education, just as the building of a Japanese car in Tennessee alters our concept of what constitutes an import.

Some Ph.D.s and post-docs return home after their completing their training, but many remain here. Moreover, foreign-born scholars are increasingly taking on leadership roles at U.S. institutions. A March article in The New York Times reported that 11 of the 61 heads of schools comprising the Association of American Universities (representing large research institutions in the U.S. and Canada) were foreign-born. The Times further noted the recent appointments of foreign-born chiefs at three New York-area institutions: Cooper Union, Seton Hall University and the Stevens Institute of Technology.

The numbers tell the story of the international presence on U.S. campuses: nearly 700,000 foreign students (of any level), and over 115,000 foreign researchers, instructors and professors.

It is in the sciences and engineering where international scholars are truly making their mark. The National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 reports that one-third of science and engineering doctoral degrees are earned by foreign students. These students typically plan on remaining in the U.S., with three-quarters of such students with known plans expressing a desire to stay, and one-half having accepted job offers. The story is the same for post-docs with 57% of science and engineering post-doc appointments going to temporary visa holders.

There is plenty to chew on in these statistics about foreign-born doctoral students and post-docs. Despite changes from year to year, certain patterns have emerged: a) The science and engineering departments at major U.S. research institutions are increasingly dependent on foreign-born scholars as Ph.D. students, post-docs, and full-time faculty. It’s no exaggeration to say that these scholars form the life blood of many U.S. S & E departments. b) The U.S. has, over time, attracted more foreign scholars and students; however, its total share of the worldwide total has declined. In other words, foreign scholars are increasingly mobile, and more and more seek training abroad. U.S. institutions have benefitted from this increase, but so too have universities in Canada, the U.K, Australia and Japan. The governments in these countries have actively encouraged foreign scholars, while U.S. policy has been more tepid.

The take-away here? The reputations of Caltech and similar institutions remain stellar, but now is no time for complacency on the part of the political class or U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services regarding the importance of attracting, and retaining, foreign scholars. One of the United States’ greatest assets is its elite research universities, and these institutions are immeasurably strengthened by the contributions of talented foreign-born students, researchers, and professors, not to mention deans, chancellors and presidents.

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