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Feds Take Small Step To Help Foreign Students Study, And Stay

Reporter Jill Replogle looks at recent actions taken by the Obama administration that will help foreign students stay after getting advanced degrees in the U.S.

Close to 700,000 international students study on U.S. college campuses; most head home after they graduate. But the federal government wants to keep highly educated foreign students here, especially those in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and math.

California is the country’s top destination for international students. More than 94,000 were enrolled in 2010, according to the Institute of International Education. Those students are coveted, in part because they bring in much-needed cash.

Last year, foreign students and their families contributed nearly $19 billion dollars to the US economy. At public schools like University of California San Diego, they pay out-of-state tuition.

“Given the budget cuts that we’ve had over the last several years, that income is very, very important to maintain the academic quality here...and it also keeps the cost for our resident students down,” said UCSD's Dean of International Education Lynn Anderson.

Plus, experts say attracting international students is essential to the country’s ability to stay competitive. To that end, last month the federal government launched a website called Study in the States — a user-friendly hub of information for international students looking for study programs and trying to navigate the often tricky visa process.

They say that’s just the first step. The Obama administration is looking for ways to ease the visa process further, to keep students like Dib Sengupta here after they graduate. Sengupta is a bioengineering student from India, working on his Ph.D. at UCSD.

Sengupta studies blood flow in patients with Kawasaki disease, a rare condition that can cause heart attacks in children. He hopes to help doctors develop better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

Sengupta says the U.S. was an obvious choice for graduate study in his field.

“Me, my friends...all of share a unanimous sort of opinion that the kind of research that is performed in the U.S., it’s much better than any other country,” Sengupta said.

In the lab where he works at UCSD, six out of the ten graduate and post-doctoral students are from foreign countries. In fact, last year 44 percent of all graduate students at the university's Jacobs School of Engineering were foreigners. Many of them would like to stay, but to do so they would need a company or university to sponsor their work visa, and those visas are limited

“Of course I want to stay here after I graduate, but it’s not entirely in my control," he said.

Lynn Shotwell, executive director of the American Council on International Personnel, a group of Fortune 500 companies and research centers that lobbies for immigration reform, said her members often can’t recruit the top talent from U.S. universities.

“The problem we have right now in the U.S. immigration system is there just aren’t enough visas available," Shotwell said. "And even when there are visas available, the paperwork and the processing and the wait times can take many, many years.”

Several bills in Congress, introduced by both Democrats and Republicans, aim to make it easier for companies to hire foreign workers. But do they have any chance of passing?

“Anytime you start talking about one piece of the immigration system, it’s tough to try and fix that without trying to fix all the other pieces that are broken," Shotwell said. "But I think this is one area that is such a clear need to our economy that hopefully they’ll be able to carve this out and move this forward.”

Still, given a sharply divided Congress and the upcoming 2012 election, most observers believe prospects for swift progress on any kind of immigration reform — even one that could help the U.S. economy — are slim.

Video edited by Nicholas McVicker.

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