A common canard is that foreign students are an asset to universities because they pay for the full cost of their education. That may be true for some entering freshman, although most foreign students including undergraduates indicate in surveys that they have received some financial support from their school.

But, if the students pursue advanced degrees, it appears that they increasingly receive university support in the form of teaching assistanceship and other financial aid. The magnitude of this assistance was recently alluded to by John Hennessy, the president of Stanford University in congressional testimony who pointed out that “We spend between a quarter and a half a million dollars per student to educate somebody at the level of a Ph.D., and then you want to send them out after we’ve made this investment?” (Bloomberg News, October 6, 2011).

While there may be many valid reasons to have foreign students attend American universities, it is far from clear that we are turning a profit on them. Perhaps a better idea would be to invest that money in American students who are facing tough odds in the current economy.