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Politicians Need To Get Serious About Retaining Foreign Graduates

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A person hands over a diploma against a backdrop of green cards | Illustration: Lex Villena; Tomas Del Amo

During a podcast appearance last week, former President Donald Trump made an uncharacteristic argument. “What I will do, is you graduate from a college, I think you should get automatically, as part of your diploma, a green card to be able to stay in this country,” he said, adding that he would even include graduates of junior colleges.

A Trump campaign spokesperson quickly tempered that proposal, promising an “aggressive vetting process” that would “exclude all communists, radical Islamists, Hamas supporters, America haters and public charges.” The green card offer would only apply to college graduates “who would never undercut American wages or workers,” the spokesperson continued. (It’s important to couch Trump’s initial statement even further: As The Washington Post‘s Catherine Rampell has pointed out, the Trump administration “implemented policies that further restricted skilled legal immigration and made the lives of these international workers and students a living hell.”)

But the back-and-forth—and the pushback Trump’s remarks received—shouldn’t deter politicians from treating foreign graduate retention as a weakness that the U.S. needs to address.

“The U.S. spends resources training hundreds of thousands of international students every year, but only provides opportunities for a fraction of them to stay after graduation,” says Connor O’Brien, a research and policy analyst at the Economic Innovation Group (EIG), a bipartisan public policy organization. “This is an incredible gift to China and other competitors, who have their best and brightest educated in America and then forced back home by our backward immigration system.”

An EIG analysis released yesterday found that only four in 10 international graduates of U.S. universities end up staying in the country long-term, according to data from the National Survey of College Graduates. Three-quarters of Ph.D. recipients stay, while half of master’s degree recipients and just 17 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients do. Some may be leaving simply because their best employment prospects are in their home countries or elsewhere. Still, a key factor is that “a growing population of international students is competing for a fixed number of opportunities to stay,” the EIG analysis notes.

“Unless we expand skilled visa programs like the H-1B, or add more employment-based green cards, we will continue losing tens of thousands of talented graduates each year,” O’Brien argues. “There are some real downsides to guaranteeing green cards for new graduates”—it may create bad incentives for universities, for one—”but it is clear we need to get better at retention, and that requires more visas.”

A hostile immigration system means many international students never make it to the U.S. in the first place. An April report from the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan public policy organization, argued that international students increasingly see Canada as a more favorable destination. Between 2000 and 2021, international student enrollment in Canada increased by 544 percent, compared to a 45 percent increase in the United States.

Discussions about high-skilled immigration are often sidetracked in favor of unproductive arguments about the southern border—look no further than last night’s presidential debate for proof. That’s a shame. Border policy desperately needs reform and has deep humanitarian and economic implications, but attracting and retaining high-skilled foreign talent are pressing issues too.

Just a few presidential elections ago, the two major-party candidates were happy to embrace this vision. “I’d staple a green card to the diploma of someone who gets an advanced degree in America,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R–Utah) said in 2012. President Barack Obama likewise said he supported “encouraging foreign students to stay in the U.S. and contribute to our economy by stapling a green card to the diplomas” of advanced STEM degree graduates.

This policy is no panacea, of course. Other reforms to the high-skilled immigration system remain necessary, such as addressing the massive green card backlogs that force scores of visa holders to wait decades for permanent status. Congressional inaction is a persistent roadblock to pretty much any meaningful immigration reform.

The U.S. has the enviable honor of being the top destination for international students. It’s time for politicians to get serious about retaining them through smart policy.

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