Debate Club

U.S. STEM Grads More Innovative Than Their Foreign Counterparts

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Several bills have been introduced in Congress to "staple a green card" to the U.S. diplomas of STEM foreign students. Proponents portray the students as brilliant innovators who—lucky us!—are remedying our STEM labor shortage. But this hype is not borne out by hard data.

To begin with, we produce plenty of STEM graduates, as detailed in an extensive 2007 Urban Institute study. There's no labor shortage. In 2011, starting salaries for new computer science graduates were up only 3 percent from the year before, and wages of experienced workers in Silicon Valley had increased only 3 percent since 2009. Neither of these figures indicates a shortage.

Flooding the STEM labor market with foreign students produces stagnant wages. This disincentivizes many of our best and brightest young Americans who hold STEM degrees from seeking careers in the field; instead, they often pursue law or M.B.A. degrees. Reportedly 25 percent of Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering graduates now go to Wall Street instead of launching careers in technology. Proponents of "staple a green card" proposals should worry about an internal brain drain in the United States.

[See a collection of political cartoons on immigration.]

Are the STEM foreign students brilliant innovators, as claimed by the industry? Some are, but the vast majority just aren't in that league. Consider the former foreign students in computer science and electrical engineering, now working for U.S. firms. The data show they are less likely to have filed a patent application than Americans of the same age and education, and less likely than their American peers to be working in R&D positions.

A study of engineering Ph.D. students by the National Science Foundation, the federal government's central science policy body, found foreign students to be disproportionately in the lower-ranked U.S. universities. The lower the ranking of an engineering school, the larger its percentage of foreign students. Interesting statistic, in light of the fact that a recent version of a bill in Congress would cover over 200 colleges, most of which are nowhere the level of an MIT or Berkeley.

In other words, former foreign students are on average less innovative than are comparable U.S. workers. This is largely due to Americans having grown up in an open culture that fosters creativity—a comparative advantage.

[Check out the U.S. News STEM blog.]

Supporters of a "staple" policy also point to the many tech immigrant entrepreneurs. Given the large number of immigrant engineers, it's not surprising that there are many immigrants starting businesses, but one must consider the type of business. One third of the tech businesses started by Chinese immigrants are in "PC wholesaling," not engineering, and many of the Indian firms are in the offshoring business.

To be sure, we should grab those few foreign students who are brilliant, of game-changer quality. An automatic green card should be granted to any foreign student to whom a U.S. tech employer offers compensation above the 90th percentile of jobs in that field.

But we should not be pushing our own best and brightest away from STEM. A 1989 NSF study forecast that a "staple a green card" policy would suppress wages, resulting in an exodus of American STEM students who would turn to law and business careers. And that's exactly what happened. The 1990 H-1B work visa program led to a large influx from abroad. This is a very powerful argument against "staple" legislation. After all, do we really need more lawyers and M.B.A.s?

Norm Matloff

About Norm Matloff Professor at University of California, Davis

Tags
STEM education
immigration reform

Other Arguments

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