California Forum

Loss of international students would jeopardize middle-class jobs

P.K. Agarwal
P.K. Agarwal

On a recent trip to India to promote higher education in the U.S., I noticed one troublesome question seemed to be on everyone’s mind: “Are Indian students still welcome in the U.S.?”

International students have long played a critical role in the success of the U.S. technology industry and the exponential growth of the innovation economy. Yet there is growing unrest among overseas students seeking a U.S.-based education who fear they may no longer be wanted in America.

Recent alleged hate crime incidents in Seattle and Olathe, Kan., have significantly heightened this sentiment. In my travels across India, I met several educational consultants who expressed the sincere concerns of parents who are fearful about their children’s safety due to worries about U.S. hate crimes. In turn, more potential students who might consider the U.S. as a destination are starting to look at options elsewhere around the world.

Today, more than 1 million overseas students contribute $32.8 billion to the U.S. economy per academic year, according to NAFSA, the Association of International Educators, the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange.

If we were to consider those international educations to be a U.S. export, it would nearly equal the 10th largest export of the U.S. economy, just after organic chemicals. Yet many international students are considering enrolling in alternative locations such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Europe. Such a loss would be significant blow to the U.S. economy, because international students supported 400,812 U.S. jobs last year for educators and other types of support roles.

The enrollment of each international student creates a kind of ripple effect. Some 142,600 direct jobs were created in higher education last year, supplemented by more than 258,200 indirect jobs from related support sectors. NASFA says that for every seven international students enrolled, three U.S. jobs are created and supported by spending for higher education, accommodation, dining, retail, transportation, telecommunications and health insurance.

And this jobs impact is widespread throughout all U.S. states, cutting across the political divide. Of the 1,537-plus U.S. institutions that educate international students, about 53 percent attend school in more liberal-leaning states and 47 percent attend school in conservative-leaning states.

For instance, the state of Massachusetts supports 31,550 good jobs from 59,436 international students, generating $2.3 billion in annual revenues. Meanwhile, the state of Texas is home to 24,269 jobs from 82,184 international students, resulting in $1.9 billion annually.

Another pressing concern stems from growing global uncertainties about U.S. immigration policies, including H-1B visas that are granted to retain skilled workers in the high-tech sector, many of whom work for India-based companies. The U.S. government capped H-1B visas issued at just 85,000 last year, down from more than 160,000 in 2014. Some critics from the tech sector have raised concerns about possible further cuts to the H-1B program under the Trump administration.

Some Canadian and Australian universities have recently stepped in to fill this void with marketing campaigns to lure new students, including a blitz of advertisements in Indian newspapers. If this trend continues, our nation is setting itself on a non-strategic path to discourage the world’s best and brightest young minds from enrolling in American institutions of higher education.

Clearly, making those students feel welcome and wanted in the United States will help sustain hundreds of thousands of middle-class American jobs, while also fueling this country’s innovation economy. We can only continue to neglect this problem at our own economic peril.

P.K. Agarwal is regional dean and CEO of Northeastern University-Silicon Valley and former chief technology officer for California under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He can be contacted at