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America's STEM shortage: International students face hardline immigration policy (Part 1)

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

In the first of a 3 part series, WES investigates how hardline immigration policy is challenging the future of international students in the US and the potential consequences of this shift in policy on the nation’s long-term STEM innovation.

The United States’ ability to attract the best and brightest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields from around the world has provided it with a competitive edge for the past half-century, yet this edge is at risk.

Recent administrations have frequently bemoaned an ongoing shortage of STEM graduates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated there will be 1 million job openings in computer occupations alone. Last year, the Trump Administration directed the Department of Education to make promoting high-quality STEM education a top priority.

One of the key reasons for the US’ STEM shortfall is America’s education system which lags behind several peers. According to the 2016 Program for International Student Assesment (PISA), a worldwide study in 70 nations of 15-year old student scholastic performance in mathematics, science, and reading, the US ranked 31st, behind nations including South Korea, Singapore, Germany, and Canada. Only 1 in 4 K-12 schools teaches computer science at all.

Source: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 2015-2016

Though a growing number of U.S. students are earning bachelor degrees in computer science, the supply of existing students is failing to keep up with demand in these fields. Significant shortfalls remain in specific sectors including aerospace engineering and computer science.

More alarmingly, the proportion of foreign students studying in the US is declining. Mounting visa problems and other obstacles are making it harder for talented students to enter the US.

Securing student immigration rights is critical as the overwhelming majority of U.S. graduate students in STEM disciplines are international students in most research universities. According to a 2017 report published by the National Foundation for American Policy, 79% of graduate students in computer science and 81% in electrical and petroleum engineering at U.S. universities are international.

Source: NBER

So, why is the US facing a STEM shortfall? The answer lies in hardline immigration policy emboldened by the Trump Administration, largely towards talented foreign students and skilled workers. These delays have been directly amplified by deterrent government policy, most notably a 2017 Memorandum which called for “heightened screening and vetting of applications for visas”.

According to a study of U.S. State Department visa-issuance published by Bloomberg, there has been a 43% drop in student visa issuance between 2015-2018. In particular, the F1-visa program for foreign students seems increasingly under threat with the number of F-1 visas falling 17% between 2016-2018, and far below a peak of 645, 000 visas in 2015. The U.S. government has cracked down on international students who overstay their visas with harsher penalties (up to a 10-year ban from the country for graduates overstaying their visas) whilst increasing the time for administrative processing of visas in February from 60 to 180 days.

Alongside changes implemented making it more difficult for international students to attain visas, the Trump Administration has increasingly sought to restrict their ability to work in the country legally following graduation. Students in STEM-designated programs can remain for Optional Practical Training (OPT) in the US for up to 3 years. A potential rule which would restrict or eliminate OPT altogether for international students still remains on the administration’s regulatory agenda, a move which would have disastrous consequences to the nation’s ability to retain talented foreign students.

H-1B visa denials have accelerated since 2016

The government has also sharply increased H-1B worker visa denials. Established in 1990, the H-1B program enables US companies to sponsor foreign workers on a temporary basis for jobs that require “highly specialized knowledge” where American workers cannot be found to fill the position. According to Department of Homeland Security data, the denial rate for H1-B petitions by employers rose from 4% in FY 2015 to 15% in FY 2018.

Evidence shows that increasingly stringent visa regulations are being acutely felt by US’s colleges and universities. The number of new international students coming to the US for college fell in the 2016/7 and 2017/8 academic years, according to a study by the Institute of International Education; these statistics mark the first drop in the number of new foreign students to the nation since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

A survey conducted with officials at 540 U.S. universities found 83% had reported visa denials, delays, and other hassles were acting to discourage international students from coming (this represented a large increase from 34% in fall 2016).

An accelerating downward trend in the number of foreign student visas issued could have disastrous long-term consequences for the U.S. economy.

Foreign students represent a major income stream to U.S. universities and the domestic economy, contributing $45 billion annually in spending each year, reducing the current-account deficit by an estimated 8% (their spending is counted a services export). International students typically pay full tuition, bringing significant revenue to their home institutions.

More severely, international students have represented a major source of talent for the U.S. when they stick around following graduation, alongside the intangible contribution to goodwill and economic connection once they return to their home countries. The loss of international students in STEM disciplines due to hardening policy towards retaining high-skilled immigrants could decimate science and engineering departments nationwide, to the detriment of research output and productivity, and compromise the ability of universities to build diverse and open student bodies.

Measuring these impacts is difficult, but it is undeniable that endless delays for prospective students are denting the appeal of the nation as a destination for higher education.

A high-profile example of the draconian and often arbitrary issues international students are facing is the case of Ismail B. Ajjawi, a Palestinian refugee and incoming freshman at Harvard who was deemed ‘inadmissible’ by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Officer in Boston due to anti-American political views posted by his friends on social media. Although Ajjawi was ultimately able to return 10 days later, his case is illustrative of the extreme challenges prospective students now face.

“It’s discourage, delay, deny,” said David Ware, an immigration lawyer.

Palestinian Refugee Ismail B. Ajjawi was initially denied entry to the country to study at Harvard.

Turning away ambitious young people will deprive U.S. universities of diversity of thought and diminish its leadership in scientific innovation.

As Terry Hartle, Senior VP of the American Council on Education said: “It’s in America’s interest to have foreign students come here. They contribute their knowledge and skills and perspectives and enterprise when they’re on campuses. They enrich discussion, and they leave with an understanding of democracy and market-based capitalism”.

Increasing restriction for talented foreign-workers and graduates is a costly and damaging endeavour which may undermine the nation’s creativity and competitiveness.


Written by: Thomas Kurian


New York Times:,



The Independent:

NBER (National Bureau of Economic Research):



Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Al Jazeera:

United Nations R.W.A.:




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