Others’ Opinion: Foreign students boost Minnesota’s economy

Published 9:52 am Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Minnesota colleges have long been known for sending a sizable share of their students abroad to study, with four schools — Carleton, St. Benedict, St. Olaf and Bethel — ranking among the nation’s top 20 in share of 2012 graduates with study-related stamps on their passports.

A new Brookings Institution report says Minnesota schools are also good — though not nation-leading — in attracting foreign students to their campuses. Those students are an asset to the state’s economy, both while they are studying and after they graduate, the report notes. Efforts to increase foreign-student enrollment are well worth pursuing.

The enrollment trend line runs in the right direction. About 13,000 foreign nationals enrolled in Minnesota colleges and universities in 2013 as either undergraduate or graduate students, up from about 4,500 a decade earlier.

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Those students make a substantial economic impact. By Brookings’ tally, examining only Twin Cities-area schools, foreign students paid $206 million in tuition and $144 million in living expenses between 2008 and 2012. A foreign-student dividend is added when those students take temporary Minnesota jobs after graduation under the federal Optional Practical Training program, as about half did in 2008-12, Brookings reported.

Brookings placed the Twin Cities a respectable 18th among U.S. metropolitan areas in numbers of foreign students. That’s not bad for a metro area that ranks 16th in total population. But boosting foreign-student numbers would be a smart goal for a state in which workforce growth is slowing and skilled workers are already in short supply in some industries.

More academic partnerships between Minnesota institutions and those in other countries might enlarge the pipeline of foreign students. So might more involvement by Minnesota employers in the Optional Practical Training program, assuring foreign students that a one-year job after graduation awaits them if they enroll in Minnesota.

A real boost is needed from the federal government, ideally as part of comprehensive immigration reform. A disproportionate share of foreign students come to U.S. schools to earn degrees in science, technology, engineering or math — the STEM subjects highly coveted by industry.

Allowing those newly minted graduates to stay and work in the United States by increasing the availability of temporary visas and “green card” permanent residencies would be a boon to states like Minnesota. Every STEM graduate who wants to remain in the United States but cannot represents a lost opportunity and another reason for immigration reform.

—The Minneapolis Star Tribune

Austin’s Riverland Community College brings several international students to the community each year. Read more at www.riverland.edu/internationalstudents/