Press Release

U.S. economy spurs foreign students to return home, study says

| 19 March 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 University of California, Berkeley, authority on technology and the global economy.

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

Foreign students' perception of U.S. economic future
Chart showing forei
"Foreign students have a sense that the United States is closing down as a land of opportunity," said 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 said in an interview, 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 benefitted 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 researchers noted 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 surveys by the National Science Foundation of doctoral recipients in science and engineering 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 said the best days for the United States economy lie ahead.
  • Approximately 74 percent of Chinese students and 86 percent of Indian students said their home countries' economies will grow faster in the future than they have in the past decade.
  • Most foreign students said 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 said 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 said they wanted 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, said 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.

AnnaLee SaxenianAnnaLee Saxenian (Peg Skorpinski photo)
Saxenian said 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 said. "But historically, we have benefitted tremendously from immigration, and this 'push' factor from the United States is distressing."

She cautioned 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."

The study was authored by Saxenian and Wadhwa, along with economist Richard Freeman, the director of Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program, and Alex Salkever, a visiting researcher with Duke's Pratt School of Engineering. More information is online at the Kaufman Foundation Web site at: http://www.kauffman.org/Newsroom.aspx.