Foreign students

ISSUE BRIEF | MARCH 2017 | DOWNLOAD PDF


The student visa program gives university students from foreign countries the opportunity to study in the United States so that they will be better able to contribute to the development of their countries when they return. But, in practice, many foreign students hope to remain in the U.S. and obtain employment with an American company.

Multiculturalists insist that the presence of foreign students and faculty in our universities is an asset to the international awareness and understanding of American students. This emphasis on so-called “global education” has led foreign post-secondary student enrollment to increase from 1.6 percent of overall enrollment in 1970, to more than 4.8 percent in 2015 (see chart below)[1]. While this rapid increase in the foreign student population may have some salutary effect on education, it also decreases opportunities for American students. Universities are increasing the number of foreign students they admit at a time when more Americans are deciding to pursue a college degree as well. This means that American students must compete with foreign students for limited available spots at institutions of higher learning.

According to the Institute for International Education (IIE), for the 2015-16 school year there are more than 1, 043,839 foreign students at American colleges and universities. However, the IIE data does not include foreign students in secondary schools. The Council on Standards for International Educational Travel puts the number of high school foreign exchange students at more than 73,000 in the 2013-14 school year (and that, also, only includes foreign students legally here with student visas).[2]

The rate of increase in the foreign student population outstrips that of native students. Since 1970 the rate of increase in the foreign student university population has risen much faster than the overall university enrollment (622% vs. 136%).

Competition for Limited Financial Assistance

Foreign students enter the U.S. as nonimmigrants on an "F-1" visa. To obtain this visa, the issuing consular officer must be convinced that they possess funds sufficient to cover the costs of their studies and living expenses while present in the United States. In practice, however, the Department of State rarely verifies the existence and availability of these funds.

As a result, many foreign students require financial assistance when studying in the United States. While ineligible for the majority of federal student aid programs, most foreign students are eligible for university scholarships and grant programs.[3] In the past, the IIE has reported that 22.9 percent of foreign students say that the "primary source of funding" of their school costs is provided by the school they attend[4]. Typically, this decreases the amount of funding available to U.S. students to supplement federal student loan packages.

In addition, cash-strapped foreign students frequently violate the terms of their admission and illegally seek off-campus employment to fund their studies.[5] This often means that foreign students compete with both American students and workers for a limited number of low-wage jobs in college communities. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement conducts only sporadic enforcement activities aimed at curbing these violations.[6]

Foreign Graduates Taking the Place of American Graduates in the Workplace

Because of the relative ease with which foreign graduates of U.S. colleges may remain in the U.S. and seek employment, recent American graduates are frequently competing with their foreign peers for jobs. And, for a number of reasons, U.S. employers tend to see foreign students as a promising pool of job recruits: F-1 students can apply for a one year period of post-graduate Optional Practical Training. U.S. companies can then hire these students at trainee wages; and neither the students, nor their employers, are required to remit payroll taxes.[7] Successful foreign trainees are often offered H-1B “specialty occupation” employment because of their willingness to accept lower wages, in exchange for an opportunity to work in the United States.[8]

The H-1B regulations were amended in 2005 to allow an additional 20,000 foreign workers who earn an American masters or higher degree to take specialized worker jobs. Those 20,000 H-1B’s do not count against the annual 65,000 visa cap. In the 2015-2016 school year there were about 384,000 foreign students enrolled in post-graduate studies in U.S. universities. When these students enter the U.S. job market after graduation, or as research assistants on the campus, they depress salary levels. This dissuades American students from entering fields with large numbers of foreign graduates, such as math and the sciences. In 2015-2016, more than one-third – about 360,000 – of the foreign students in the U.S. were enrolled in engineering, math or science fields. These foreign students are also attractive to universities because they help them meet affirmative action goals, which were designed to help American native minorities, diminishing the need to recruit those U.S. minority students.

Student Visa Reform Options

The surge in foreign student enrollment could be moderated with an annual ceiling, similar to the H-1B cap. As long as entry to a U.S. university operates as an unrestricted precursor to obtaining a work visa and sponsorship for permanent immigrant status, it will continue to discourage American natives from pursuing degrees in fields popular with foreign students. Therefore, it makes sense to limit the influx of foreign students to a reasonable level.

Another approach would be to require that all F-1 students return home, for a specified period, at the conclusion of their studies. This provision applies now to certain exchange visitors ("J" visas) who participate in university exchange programs. They are required to return to their home country for at least two years before returning to the United States as immigrants. Expanding this requirement to all foreign students would likely reduce the incentive for foreign students to use admissions to a U.S. school as an avenue to obtain work authorization and ultimately permanent status. Student visa programs should be focused on educating international students to provide job skills needed in their home countries – without limiting the number of university seats available to American students – as this was the original concept of the program.




[1] Foreign student enrollment from the Institute for International Education and overall enrollment from the National Center for Education Statistics.

[2] Alexandra Pannoni, “How Foreign Teens Can Attend U.S. High Schools,” U.S. News, January 26, 2017, accessed March 20, 2017 https://www.usnews.com/high-schools/best-high-schools/articles/2017-01-26/4-tips-for-international-high-schoolers-wanting-to-study-in-the-us

[3] Amrita Didyalal, “Students Giving Up ‘Illegal’ Part-Time Jobs to Stay in U.S.” The Times of India, January 4, 2016 (noting increased F-1enforcement activity following the Paris terror attacks), accessed March 20, 2017 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Students-giving-up-illegal-part-time-jobs-to-stay-in-US/articleshow/50431975.cms

[4] David North, “How Employers Cheat America’s Aging by Hiring Foreign Workers,” Center for Immigration Studies, June 2012, accessed March 20, 2017 http://cis.org/Employers-Cheat-Aging-By-Hiring-Foreign-Workers-Spanish

[5] John Simons, “H-1B Visas Keep Down U.S. Tech Wagers, Study Shows,” The Wall Street Journal, March 14, 2017, accessed March 20, 2017 https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-new-look-at-the-h-1b-visa-programs-impact-on-american-workers-1489483811

[6] Farran Powell, “10 Universities That Offer International Students the Most Aid,” U.S. News, Sept. 20, 2016, accessed March 20, 2017 https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/2016-09-20/10-universities-that-offer-international-students-the-most-aid

[7] Institute of International Education. (2011). "International Students by Primary Source of Funding, 2009/10 - 2010/11."  http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Open-Doors/Data/International-Students/Primary-Source-of-Funding/2009-11

[8] Rebecca Yeung, “Frustrated With Regulations, UW International Students Turn to Illegal Work,” The Seattle Globalist, March 18, 2014, accessed March 20, 2017 http://www.seattleglobalist.com/2014/03/18/uw-international-students-working-illegally/21285