Opinion: How foreign students strengthen Michigan's tech sector

Sam Peak
A report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) found that Michigan colleges and universities have felt the largest drop in international enrollment numbers in the Midwest.

You might not know it, but Michigan is losing its international students. A new report by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) found that Michigan colleges and universities have felt the largest drop in international enrollment numbers in the Midwest, losing over 1,000 international students between 2017 and 2018.

These findings come only a few months after reports of ICE arresting roughly 250 students in the Detroit area as part of a sting operation that tricked students into attending a fake university that offered no actual courses and caused them to violate their visa status.

Sam Peak

This incident, combined with other federal policies the U.S. government has undertaken, is making more foreign students apprehensive about studying in America, threatening our competitive edge in STEM and undermining state economies like Michigan’s, whose large manufacturing sector is being radically transformed by artificial intelligence (AI) and other innovations. Michigan needs to attract all the talent it can so that its firms can swiftly embrace new technologies and expand to create more opportunities for Michigan residents.

To this end, foreign students are essential. They make up half of the nation’s new graduate enrollees studying computer science and engineering, yet represent less than a fourth of first- time graduate students in the U.S. In 2015, international students represented 74% of graduate electrical engineering enrollees at Michigan State University, and 59% of graduate computer science enrollees at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, which ranks 10th in the nation for AI.

These high enrollment numbers pay dividends to both universities and to residents in Michigan. Without international students, such programs would be less than half their current size and likely have less funding available — decreasing the quality for American students interested in STEM. The research is also clear that foreign students create more academic opportunities for U.S. students. One way they do this is by paying out-of-state tuition. At public universities, they pay a minimum of double on average compared to their U.S. counterparts. And universities tend to turn around and toss a lot of that cash toward creating more openings and financial assistance for American students.

Foreign students’ contributions certainly don’t end after they graduate. Through a program known as Optional Practical Training (OPT), international STEM students have the option to work in the U.S. for a maximum of three years after graduation, working in cities like Detroit. On mitalent.org, Michigan’s website that connects employers with job seekers, nearly 100,000 jobs remain unfilled, which the state government attributes to a skills gap in STEM fields.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government could disenfranchise international students in Michigan once again. The Trump administration is slated to curtail OPT in August, on the basis that the program displaces American workers. But research from the Niskanen Center finds that this just isn’t true — OPT participants actually increase earnings for Americans. For every 10 OPT participants in an area, that same locality generates about five more patents. This could explain why Detroit has ranked among the top 10 metro areas for patenting. 

When President Trump was elected in 2016, he carried states like Michigan with the promise of bringing manufacturing back to the state — yet the state has continued losing such jobs since he took office. If Trump wants to empower states like Michigan to thrive in the 21st century economy, he should rethink his approach to international students. 

Sam Peak is a tech and innovation fellow for Young Voices and a policy associate for Americans for Prosperity. The views expressed in this piece are the author’s alone.