The United States has a long tradition of welcoming foreign students who wish to study in American universities. They are welcomed in the spirit of academic freedom and as a means to spread America values around the world, and, increasingly, also for the full tuition that they pay to state schools facing budget crunches. But can there be too much of a good thing? Is it fair to continue to expand the intake of foreign students if it means that qualified local residents are excluded? That is unfair to families whose taxes support the state schools. This is a question now being addressed by some local policymakers as reported in the New York Times of February 4, 2012.

But an issue that seems never to be discussed regarding the surge in foreign students is what happens after they graduate? There is much discussion about ‘not losing the best and brightest,’ and ‘stapling a green card to every STEM degree.’ And there is constant agitation from business and academia interest to expand the H-1B program and immigrant visas for employer-sponsored foreigners. However, no one seems to connect the dots between the increasingly clogged immigrant entry process for employer-sponsored workers and the unhindered surge of foreigners into our university system. The universities know that a large part of the inducement for a foreign student to pay full tuition to earn a U.S. university degree is the opportunity to land a well-paying U.S. job. It is, therefore, natural that they make common cause with the students who seek visas to gain greater access to U.S. jobs. And business interests that view the foreign graduates as a source for holding down starting salaries and replacing more expensive older workers are only too happy to be on the same bandwagon pushing for more visas.

In effect, our student visa process cedes control over an important segment of our immigrant selection process to the country’s universities. This in the past was not a major issue when the flow of foreign students was modest. That is no longer true. From 135,000 foreign students in 1970, the number has steadily risen to 387,000 in 1990 and 723,000 in 2010. Is it reasonable to expect foreign students – who today are often recruited to attend U.S. universities – to limit their expectations of obtaining a future U.S. job or to expect the universities to explain to prospective students the limits? If not, then the time has arrived when policymakers must establish some limits on the intake of foreign students.