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Gifted Foreign Students: Homeward Bound?

One of the more fascinating and too-often underplayed aspects of the immigration debate centers on U.S. policies toward foreign college students and highly skilled workers. Many high-tech and industry leaders say those students and employees have played a vital role in our nation's business innovation and economic growth.

A 2007 study, for instance, found that 52 percent of Silicon Valley startups had one or more immigrants as a key founder, compared with the California average of 38 percent. More broadly across the economy, immigrant-founded companies produced $52 billion in sales and employed 450,000 workers in 2005. One of the authors of that study is Vivek Wadhwa, a researcher who has written and spoken extensively on the impact of highly skilled immigrant workers.

The issue of whether to increase the cap on H-1B visas, which would allow more highly skilled, foreign-born workers to stay in this country, has been heavily debated in Congress. A number of corporate leaders want it. Some critics say these measures would take potential jobs away from U.S.-born workers and drive down salaries.

Now a new survey examines the attitudes of foreign-born college students and their interests in staying in the United States after graduation. Titled "Losing the World's Best and Brightest," it found that very few—6 percent of Indian students, 10 percent of Chinese, 15 percent of European—would like to stay in the United States permanently. A higher percentage indicated they would be interested in staying for a few years, then leaving.

What's interesting is what the survey suggests about students' reasons for heading for the exits.

On the one hand, the vast majority of foreign students—for instance, 85 percent of Indians and Chinese—were concerned about obtaining work visas. Yet they also had worries about where the U.S. economy is headed and job prospects here. Only 7 percent of Chinese students, 9 percent of Europeans, and 25 percent of Indians said they believed the best days of the U.S. economy are ahead of us. By contrast, 74 percent of Chinese students and 86 percent of Indian students saw a bright future for their home nations' economies.

The survey was based on responses from 1,224 foreign nationals currently studying in the United States who had graduated by the end of 2008. It was conducted in October of last year via the Facebook social-networking site.

It was sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. (Disclosure: Kauffman provides funding to Ed Week for math and science coverage.)

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