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America's economy spurs foreign students to return home, study says

Already 'pulled' that way by family ties, they're now feeling a 'push' from a struggling U.S.

| 02 April 2009

Most foreign nationals studying at universities in the United States say American higher education is the best in the world, but few plan to remain permanently in this country after graduation to pursue their careers, according to a new study co-authored by a Berkeley authority on technology and the global economy.

AnnaLee Saxenian, dean of the School of Information as well as a professor of city and regional planning, says the research findings released March 19 offer a snapshot of students' intentions. They reflect not just the students' desire to return to family and friends overseas, but their assessment that there are better economic prospects abroad.

"Foreign students have a sense that the United States is closing down as a land of opportunity," says Saxenian, author of the book The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy (2006) and a landmark report, "Local and Global Networks of Immigrant Professionals in Silicon Valley," published in 2002 for the Public Policy Institute of California.

This is happening, she says, even though "the U.S. has long been a magnet for the best and the brightest from around the world, and even though we have benefited from many of these students who are the cream of the crop starting businesses that generate net wealth and expand opportunities for everyone."

Saxenian and her fellow re-searchers note in their report that foreign nationals are represented disproportionately as co-founders of U.S. technology firms, including giants such as Google, Intel, eBay, and Yahoo.

For the new report, some 1,224 foreign nationals from India, China and Western Europe studying at U.S. universities and colleges or who had graduated by the end of the 2008 academic year were surveyed last October via the Facebook social-networking site in research commissioned by the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation, a private, nonprofit foundation established to improve economies and human welfare through entrepreneurship and innovation. The students' fields of study primarily included engineering, business and economics, computer science, and biological sciences.

Past National Science Foun-dation surveys of doctoral recipients in science and engineering have showed that 92 percent of Chinese students intended to stay in the United States to work or conduct research for at least five years after graduating, while 85 percent of students from India intended to do so.

But the Kaufman study revealed a different picture. Among its key findings:

Just 7 percent of Chinese students and 25 percent of Indian students surveyed say the best days for the United States economy lie ahead.

Approximately 74 percent of Chinese students and 86 percent of Indian students say their home countries' economies will grow faster in the future than they have in the past decade.

Most foreign students say innovation will occur faster over the next 25 years in India and China than in the United States.

Some 76 percent of Chinese students and almost 84 percent of Indian students say it would be difficult to find a job in their field in the United States.

While 58 percent of Indian, 54 percent of Chinese, and 40 percent of European students want to stay in the United States for a few years after graduation, only 6 percent of Indian students, 10 percent of Chinese students, and 15 percent of European students say they want to remain permanently.

Vivek Wadhwa, lead author of the report and a technology entrepreneur who also is an executive-in-residence at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering and a senior research associate at Harvard Law School, says these numbers are alarming because foreign students comprise almost 60 percent of all engineering doctorates and more than half of all math, computer science, physics, and economics doctorates awarded in the United States.

Saxenian says the shift in foreign students' attitudes is due in part to their increasing concerns about a diminished U.S. welcome to workers from abroad, which began with "overly aggressive" clamp-downs on foreign-worker visas after 9/11 and has been exacerbated by an ever-worsening economic crisis in the United States.

"That there is a pull factor from their home countries is natural and understandable," Saxenian says. "But historically, we have benefited tremendously from immigration, and this 'push' factor from the United States is distressing."

She cautions against the United States throwing up barriers in today's global economy: "The growth of the Indian and Chinese economies is good for everyone. The challenge for the U.S. is to preserve the economic dynamism and openness that has long made us a magnet for talented immigrants."