A couple of years ago, even before travel bans, walls, and the murder of Indian graduate students in the heartland, a top executive for a tech company was bemoaning the stupidity of U.S. immigration policy. “It would be as if,” he said, “I created the best internship program I could design, sharing all my secrets about what I had learned about what works in our industry, recruited my competitors best people to it, and then forced them to go back and work for my competitors!” He did not seem to think that a smart business strategy.
U.S. universities, flawed as they are in some ways, have long been a magnet for international talent, many with reputations as best in class. They have provided that “internship” the executive imagined and graduated students with expertise and degrees much needed in the U.S. and the world economy. Even in our better days we forced many of these talented graduates to return to their home countries with little opportunity to create companies, jobs, and solutions to our own pressing problems in the U.S. And those were the good old days. Now, due to what is perceived globally as an increasingly hostile climate in the U.S., international enrollments are suffering even in areas like business that were particularly strong attractors for international talent. Countries like Canada and Mexico are ramping up their efforts to attract international students with a simple message: you are welcome here. In addition, the European Union, China, India, and other talent suppliers are doing more to keep their best and brightest home. None of this is good news for a talent starved U.S. economy where hundreds of thousands of jobs stand vacant because employers cannot find the people with the credentials needed to fill them. More and more businesses are seeing this talent dearth as a threat to their bottom line.
History teaches us how much we need immigrant talent. Today more than 40 percent of Fortune 400 companies were founded by immigrants or the children of immigrants. Between them they provide 19 million jobs and $4.8 trillion in revenue to support the U.S. economy. Most of those jobs and that revenue feed the families of native born U.S. citizens.
Immigrants also are key to our ability to innovate and discover. Americans have won 40 percent of all the Nobel Prizes ever awarded. U.S. immigrants are hugely over-represented in that number. Thirty-five percent of those American Nobel prizes were won by immigrants. Last year only one American winner was NOT an immigrant (Bob Dylan). In fact, if U.S. immigrants were a country they would have won more Nobel prizes than any country except the U.S.
“Wealth follows talent.” That was one of the truths shared by former CEO and Chairman of Intel Craig Barrett when asked what his long career had taught him. A threat to the talent pool threatens the wealth of the country. Future “off-shoring” will not be about low skills jobs if this trend continues. It will be about research and development divisions of major corporations. In fact, some of that is already happening. Many universities realize this and are working hard to recruit international talent- swimming upstream in the current xenophobic river in which we seem to be swimming. The best schools see this as a compliment to efforts to do a better job of tapping the talent of underserved groups domestically. They know that international students do not replace domestic students. That is not the way the higher education system works. If anything the international students provide revenue to support all students in cash-strapped schools where states have shortsightedly undercut these talent hubs: hubs that will not move to another state when tax incentives disappear.
Universities also know that a reasonable cadre of international students successfully integrated into campus life increases the quality of education for all students. How, one might ask, can we claim to prepare college graduates for a global economy if they do not have the opportunity to work with colleagues from around the globe in acquiring that education. My home institution, Illinois State University, knows this and has set aggressive goals to increase international enrollment to benefit the vast majority of their current students who come from Illinois. And not to put too fine a point on it, but even U.S. educated international students who do return to their home countries can provide a bridge to efforts to build partnerships and global understanding.
Because our universities know all this many are seeking help in these tough times through public-private partnerships with organizations that have deep expertise in helping them recruit, retain, and graduate international students. These partnerships support strategies that integrate international students into campus cultures to the benefit of all students. In addition, these private partners help universities cut through bureaucratic red tape, provide needed students supports, battle negative press in other countries, and create learning pathways that help ensure successful programs. The growing number of these public-private partnerships provide one ray of hope in an otherwise difficult environment.
At a time when the talent demands of the U.S. economy are escalating more rapidly than ever, when employers’ bottom lines are being hurt by the inability to secure desperately needed talent, when U.S. universities remain talent magnets for regions, states, the nation, and the globe, we seem intent on performing stupid magic tricks to make talent disappear. We undercut the universities that attract and produce the talent, put out an “un-welcome” mat to talented people around the globe, and make it harder and harder for international talent to obtain visas needed to contribute to our national well-being. Actually there is nothing very magical about any of this. These are fearful strategies that ignore our history, undercut our values, and run counter to our self-interest.