Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your College Students

Last time the Governor came to Athens (besides this), ink was spilled on the Board of Regents policy that prevents undocumented immigrants from attending the top five universities in the state.

That hasn’t prevented their documented cousins from finding their way to the Peach State. A new Brookings Institute study crunched the numbers on a heretofore confidential data set on foreign students in the United States. These students hold F-1 visas, commonly compared to the H1-B visas used to bring international talent to engineering hubs like Silicon Valley. Like the H1-B visa, the F-1’s purpose is to fill skills gaps, with which we are familiar. This is the NFL Draft as immigration policy.

21% of all international students attend a university in the United States, making us the “global hub” of this cultural import. In 2001, there were roughly 110,000 F-1 students in the US; by 2012 we hosted 524,000. These highly-qualified students come for our pre-eminence in R and D. They stay (45%) for economic opportunities and political liberties—foreign students from China are much more likely to find a home here than students from democratic India.

Those two countries plus South Korea and Saudi Arabia send the lion’s share of students. They’re an economical bunch, mostly majoring in useful and high-earning STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and business subjects. They hail from major cities like Seoul and Shanghai and generally attend American universities in sister cities like New York or Los Angeles at a higher rate than American citizens. If they stay here, they’re likely to stay in those cities.

In Georgia, three cities made that cut. As you’d expect, Atlanta has by far the largest number of students; F-1 visa holders are much more likely to stay in the Capital of the South than the other two Georgia cities. Both Atlanta and Athens students major in STEM about 45% of the time; Savannah has an unusually low rate of STEM majors, indicating that SCAD is the city’s primary international magnet.

Emory University, a school that is in Georgia if not exactly of it, has the most foreign students; Georgia treasures like Atlanta University and UGA don’t seem to have the same appeal. For a boosterish city proud of its international clout, Atlanta has slightly fewer foreign students than its size would suggest.

The data is a hopeful strike on the “declining America” narrative yet feeds the notion that Sunbelt states are more likely to cannibalize domestic growth and population than swell the nation from beyond her borders. Georgia’s performance is good, though not exceptional. The obvious question is “how do we do better?” The significant one, the political one, is “Do we want to?”

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