Is the U.S. Brain Gain Faltering?

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Science  28 May 2004:
Vol. 304, Issue 5675, pp. 1278-1282
DOI: 10.1126/science.304.5675.1278

Fears that U.S. graduate programs in the sciences are no longer attracting their share of the world's brightest students don't square with the facts

Plant geneticist Ralph Dean remembers the first time he met Heng Zhu, who was to become his first foreign-born Ph.D. student. It was at a 1993 conference in Madison, Wisconsin, and Zhu's mentor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' (CAS's) Institute of Genetics had thought highly enough of his student to fly him all the way from Beijing to match him with a good U.S. lab.

Dean was immediately impressed. “He was dynamic, outgoing, and spoke good English,” says the 46-year-old professor and director of integrated fungal research at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. Dean may also have seen a little of himself in the budding Chinese scientist: He had followed a similar path, having come to the United States in 1980 as a graduate student from his native England “because this was where I could do the best science.” Best of all, says Dean, then at Clemson University, “I had a great project for him to work on. So I took the risk.”

Dean's instinct was right. This month, 11 years after that fateful encounter, Zhu, 36, moved into a spanking new lab at Johns Hopkins University's School of Medicine as a tenure-track assistant professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences. After completing his Ph.D. in 1999, Zhu snared a postdoctoral position at Yale University, where he earned a reputation as a wizard with protein microarrays. By last fall, Zhu was considered such a catch that the head of the new center he has joined went to the trouble of assembling a recruitment package touting the glories of Baltimore—including a souvenir Orioles baseball jersey—and shipping it to Zhu's fiancée (now wife) back in China.

Zhu's scientific journey from Beijing to Baltimore typifies the upward mobility that U.S. graduate education offers to hundreds of thousands of students every year from around the world. It's a familiar story, and it comes with a clear and upbeat moral: Open borders provide spectacular benefits to both the immigrant scientist and the host country.

At least, it's been that way for the working lives of most U.S. scientists. But some university administrators and department chairs are worried that a post-9/11 United States has become a less attractive destination for many foreign students. Most can relate unhappy tales of a brilliant student who couldn't get through immigration to enroll, or a foreign-born colleague detained on the way home from an international meeting. Any interruption in this stream of foreign talent to U.S. shores, they say, could threaten the country's status as the world's leading scientific power.

In March came news that seemed to confirm the worst fears: Two university-based surveys reported a downturn in the number of graduate applications from foreign students for the 2004–05 academic year (Science, 5 March, p. 1453). Research dean Lenore Kola of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, remembers her reaction when the data started to show up in her computer. “It was like we hit a wall in February,” she says. Her office projects a 41% drop in the number of international grad school applicants for the 2004–05 academic year.

To many administrators, the survey seemed to offer proof that the federal government's new immigration policies were undermining their institutions' abilities to attract the world's best students. “Sadly, the unpredictability and delays that characterize the new system have resulted in a growing number of the world's brightest young people deciding to remain at home or go to other countries for their graduate education,” wrote Robert Gates, a former CIA director and current president of Texas A&M University in College Station, on the 31 March opinion page of The New York Times.

But are these fears well founded? Is the next Heng Zhu less likely to come to the United States because of the country's post-9/11 attempts to combat global terrorism? More broadly, what factors shape the flow of young international scientific talent into U.S. universities? For answers, Science talked with dozens of U.S. academics and examined admissions data from their institutions. We probed attitudes in China and India, the two biggest sources of overseas talent. We looked at what's happening in Australia, widely held to be an increasingly popular destination for young scientists.

The picture that emerges is different in many respects from the one Gates and many of his academic colleagues have been painting. One important reason is that the number of applications to U.S. graduate schools from foreign students has soared in recent years. Another is that the chances of a foreign applicant becoming a member of the next entering class are extremely low: As few as one in 50 receive an offer of admission, and fewer than half of those admitted actually enroll. In fact, policies affecting the “demand” side of the equation—the number of foreign students U.S. graduate programs want, or can afford, to admit—are likely to have a greater impact on quality than fluctuations in the supply side. The data also raise doubts about the pervasive fear that the top students are going elsewhere: The number of Chinese graduate students in science and engineering entering Australian universities, for example, is actually declining. The biggest—and so far unanswerable— question, however, is whether the best students are being scared off. So far, at least, there's little indication that that's the case.

What follows is an attempt to put the concern over visa restrictions into the context of other key factors that influence the number and quality of foreign students in U.S. graduate education.

Opportunity costs.

Johns Hopkins's Heng Zhu has fulfilled his scientific dreams in the United States and overcome barriers to travel.


1. Is there an irresistible lure from Down Under?

In his op-ed piece, Gates echoed the popular wisdom that many of the best Asian and European students are flocking to Australia to pursue graduate science and engineering degrees that they would otherwise have earned in the United States. A recent report by the Australian government of a 16% rise in foreign student enrollment has reinforced that perception. But a closer look at the numbers shows that assumption to be incorrect.

Let's start with higher education as a whole. Yes, the number of overseas students at Australian universities rose by 16% in 2003, to 136,000. But the rise comes after a 10% drop in 2002, which was preceded by a 20% jump the year before. Enrollment—overwhelmingly of undergraduates—is cyclical. An epidemic such as severe acute respiratory syndrome or an Asian economic crisis can constrict the annual flow one year just as a declining Australian dollar or the Olympic games can pump it up the next, explains Jennie Lang, director of international students at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), one of the country's biggest universities. (In fact, one-third of those overseas students don't even leave their country but attend branch campuses in their native land.)

There are also good reasons to believe that enrollments won't continue to rise. “We've reached our maximum on international students, and we are in a holding pattern,” Lang notes. The university has capped the number of international students at 25% (she calls it a guideline) “to ensure that students continue to have an Australian experience—to study with Australians—and to be sure that Australians have a chance to pursue their educational opportunities.” Although the guideline now applies only to UNSW, other educators say it is likely to spread because other campuses are feeling the same pressures.

With regard to advanced training in the sciences and engineering, the data fail to support the giant sucking sound that U.S. academics claim to be hearing. For starters, the Australian postgraduate education system is tiny compared with the U.S. system. Last year, Australia's universities enrolled a total of 539 international students in doctoral degree programs in the natural sciences, engineering, and information technology. By comparison, there are 2.5 times that number of first-year foreign students enrolled in U.S. doctoral programs in physics alone—and physics represents only about 3% of the overall U.S. science and engineering doctoral pool.

In addition, Australian educators say the system is already near or at capacity. “We can't add students unless we get more buildings and more lab space,” says Michael Archer, UNSW's vice president for research. More to the point, there's little money to attract international graduate students. “They either bring their own money or pay their own way,” says Lang. “We offer them about 80 to 90 scholarships a year,” she notes, out of a total doctoral pool of 1500 to 2000 students.

Capping the flow.

The University of New South Wales has limited the number of international students to ensure “an Australian experience.”


Finally, country-by-country enrollment trends within Australia belie the notion that Asia's best graduate students are heading south and east rather than west. For example, the number of Chinese doctoral students studying science and information technology in Australia is half what it was a decade ago, falling from an average of 230 in the 1990s to 108 in 2002. Engineering enrollment has also tumbled, from about 175 for most of the previous decade to 115 in 2002. The trends are scarcely better for the much smaller Indian contingent: There's been a slight rise in the number of science Ph.D. students starting in the latter half of the 1990s, from 27 in 1998 to 45 in 2002, while the number of engineering students has hovered at around 30.

2. Do fewer applicants mean fewer foreign students on campus?

It might seem logical to assume that a decline in the number of applications from abroad would lead directly to a drop in the number of international students on U.S. campuses. Wrong. Most U.S. universities receive so many applications from overseas—in particular China and India—that the number of applications often has no affect on the number admitted, much less on enrollment. Indeed, many universities have experienced such a surge in international applications in recent years that any drop-off this year leaves them still comfortably ahead of historical levels.

At Case Western, for example, the number of applications from Chinese students—who represent 80% of the school's foreign applicants—has more than tripled in the past 4 years. So this year's haul, even after a 41% decline, will still match 2002 levels and be twice the number that applied in 1999. Yet, despite the surge in applications, the number of international students admitted by Case Western has held steady for the past 5 years.

This experience is not unusual, because the number of foreign students enrolled in any particular U.S. graduate school depends on many factors in addition to the number and quality of overseas applicants. For public universities, a big one is money. International students cost more to educate, and that can be a limiting factor in how many foreign students a department can enroll. James Allen, chair of the physics department at the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara, explains how it works at his university.

Foreign students typically represent from 20% to 25% of the graduate students in Allen's department, a figure that places it below a nationwide average of 50%. It's not for lack of student interest: “We get 400 to 500 applications [each year] for 20 to 25 slots,” explains Allen, “so there's plenty to choose from.” Instead, Allen says, the demographics are influenced by reimbursements to the department for what he calls “excess tuition and fees” for out-of-state students. “It's never enough,” he says. “So as the number of foreign students grows, we can either beg [the dean] for more money or get it out of department funds.”

This winter, Allen says the department decided to “bite the bullet” and spend $100,000 from its budget to pay for four or five more international students. “There was a lot of gnashing of teeth,” he recalls. “But we all agreed that they were great students. So instead of accepting 60, we accepted 80.” (The department's one-in-four yield rate—one student shows up in the fall for every four admitted—is fairly typical and adds some guesswork to the financial equations.) In return, he says, the department is tightening its belt by dropping one lecturer and adopting a series of one-time savings.

Some departments make the de facto cap explicit: The physics department at UC Berkeley, says chair Christopher McKee, aims for no more than 25% international students so that it can afford to pay their nonresident tuition rates. However, most adopt a more informal process. “Yes, there are financial constraints,” says Richard Attiyeh, graduate dean at UC San Diego. “But our goal is to get the best students.”

Some university administrators say that domestic students are simply a better fit for their programs. Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, for example, currently has 34 different research training grants from the National Institutes of Health, which require participants to be U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Vanderbilt takes pride in its relatively small population—10% to 15%—of international students. “We don't have too much trouble recruiting good students, so we haven't needed foreign students as a source of labor,” says senior associate dean Roger Chalkley, who oversees graduate biomedical research education and training at the medical school. “We also very much prefer them because their English skills are so much better than the Asian kids'.” Still, the high bar doesn't seem to deter applicants: Last year, for example, the school received 710 applications from foreign students and enrolled 14.

The good news for departments seeking to maximize the number of U.S. citizens in their graduate programs is that the drop in foreign applications has been offset at many universities by rising demand from domestic students. At Duke, for example, the number of domestic applications for graduate programs hit a 10-year high this year. It also exceeded the number of foreign applications for the first time since 2000. The University of Texas saw a similar flip-flop in the nationality of its graduate school applicants. “From my view, this is a very good thing,” says Lew Siegel, dean of Duke's grad school. “It means that more U.S. students are interested in STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] careers, and that's a trend we desperately need.”

Bei-Tseng (Bill) Chu, chair of the software and information systems department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, has watched those opposing trend lines shape the school's new graduate program in information technology. “Our program has grown by 27% since 2002,” he says, “and the enrollment has gone from a majority foreign to a majority domestic.” He says that foreign students were scared away from the field after the dot-com bust but that domestic students “have an easier time” understanding the larger role that information technology plays in society.

3. Are visa barriers the reason for the drop?

There is no doubt that many international students have a harder time entering the United States now than a decade ago and that non-U.S. citizens working here face more obstacles getting back into the country after personal or professional travel abroad. Zhu himself received an unexpected 11-month “vacation” after returning home on an expired H-1B visa in 2002, and his new bride is still back in China, hoping to join him soon in the United States. Such incidents have raised real concerns that have echoed throughout U.S. campuses in the past couple of years, and few would disagree with Gates's observation that “we simply cannot tolerate a visa process that fails to differentiate quickly and accurately between legitimate scholars and [those] who may pose genuine security risks.”

Viewed from India, however, a downturn in U.S. employment opportunities, as Asia's economy remains strong, appears to be a bigger disincentive for Indians thinking of studying in the United States. Vijaya Khandavilli, a microbiologist and educational adviser in the New Delhi office of the U.S. Educational Foundation in India, says students visiting her office complained of neither arbitrary visa decisions nor unduly long wait times. Instead, she says, fewer students see the point of spending a long period abroad when their job prospects after graduation are so uncertain.

Academic officials in China, the largest source of foreign applicants for many U.S. programs, say that anticipated visa problems are only one of several reasons Chinese students may be thinking twice about coming to the United States. A growth in postgraduate education in China is giving domestic students a better chance to complete their educations at home, says Yan Xuehong, deputy director of student affairs for the postgraduate school at CAS. And she says there is also a rising demand for these graduates.

Wang Geng, who's finishing his master's degree in electrical engineering at the top- rated Qinghua University, says he made a “halfhearted” effort 2 years ago to gain a slot in a top U.S. graduate program and that his friends who succeeded “are worried that they will not be able to find an ideal job after graduation.” He Yifeng, a graduate student in chemistry at Beijing University, is confident that he can get a good education in China—and a good job afterward. Even so, He says that he plans to apply for a Ph.D. or postdoc position in the United States “once the opportunities improve, [because] studying in the States is still the best place to broaden your mind and gain more insights.”

Another factor that may be affecting applications from China is a change last year in the qualifying test for graduate admissions. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) noticed that scores on its Graduate Record Examination from China, Taiwan, and South Korea would rise by as much as 100 points throughout the month, then dip at the start of the next month before resuming their climb. “This scalloping pattern was so obvious,” says David Payne of ETS in Princeton, New Jersey, that there was “no doubt” students were obtaining answers to the test, which changes every month, from those who took it early in the month. By changing to a paper-and-pencil test and reducing the frequency and number of sites where the test is administered, ETS says it has rooted out the problem. But it wasn't good for business: The number of students taking the test fell by 50% this year in China and by 43% in Taiwan.

To be sure, the drop could simply reflect a reduction in the number of students who want to pursue graduate work in the United States. Indeed, Payne says the volume also dropped by 37% in India, where the exam procedures were not changed. But several university graduate deans believe that the more rigorous security might have scared off students less confident of their academic abilities. If so, that drop in applications may have come disproportionately from the lower end of the spectrum.

4. Is quality declining?

Even as U.S. department chairs and administrators worry about the ones that might have been turned away, they are quick to add that they don't think the quality of the current applicant pool has suffered. And they say it's much too early to speculate on whether declining numbers of applicants will affect the quality of future classes. Given the high ratio of applicants to available slots, however, most chairs expect to continue to have plenty of excellent candidates to choose from.

“I'm not ready to say that the sky is falling,” says Alice Gast, vice president for research and assistant provost at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the number of international applications to its six graduate programs has returned to 2000 levels after a 16% drop in the past 2 years. “I've been looking at MIT figures historically, and you can see how political events over the years have impacted the numbers.”

Alan Goldman, chair of the physics department at the University of Minnesota, says that “we were bracing for a tremendous attrition rate last year [in the number of applications], but it's been less of a problem than we thought. I'm not saying that it's not a problem—there are perceived and real barriers to entry. But we're managing.”

As Zhu settles in at Johns Hopkins, he can still remember the bumpy road he traveled to get there. “First my Chinese adviser wanted me to apply to graduate school at CAS,” he says. Then Zhu got rejected by all but one U.S. graduate program—“and they didn't offer any money, so I didn't go.” Finally came the opportunity to travel to America and “find someone who would sponsor me.”

A tighter immigration policy is probably no match for someone with such perseverance. But for U.S. academics, the question remains: Are there still enough people like Zhu out there?

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