Geographic concentration of international students: economic and political effects

The top origin cities of international students in Los Angeles from 2008-2012 were Seoul, Beijing, Taipei, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Map generated by Calvin Ho from Ruiz 2014 data using the Great Circle Mapper -  copyright © Karl L. Swartz.
The top origin cities of international students in Los Angeles from 2008-2012 were Seoul, Beijing, Taipei, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Map generated by Calvin Ho from Ruiz 2014 data using the Great Circle Mapper -copyright © Karl L. Swartz.

Neil Ruiz at the Brookings Institution published an insightful report on the geography of international students in the United States (2001-2012). Using data from I-20 forms and Optional Practical Training (OPT) authorizations, Ruiz mapped out the origins of international students around the world and their destinations in the US. As he notes in the introduction, most work on the economic impact of international students looks at country-level trends, both for sending and receiving countries. This report is innovative in that it breaks the numbers down by metropolitan area.

Though disaggregating the data this way is a move in the right direction, Ruiz could have gone further, by addressing the inequality between and within metropolitan areas. For example, the top hometowns of international students in the US (2008-2012) were Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Hyderabad, and Riyadh. As Ruiz argues, these cities and the others in the list of top 20 hometowns are “economically emerging,” with rapid growth in GDP per capita.

However, the opportunity to get a degree abroad is unevenly distributed across the metropolitan area population. The families that can afford to bear the cost of a US degree are a small sliver of the population in places like Beijing and Hyderabad. Furthermore, there may be a large gap in economic opportunities between these large “emerging” cities and other urban and rural areas in the same countries. China, for instance, has a significant wealth gap between coastal and interior provinces.

This would suggest that a small elite reaps most of the benefits of a US degree. These students may acquire skills that can aggregate up to increases in metropolitan area-level GDP in the long term. However, the unequal distribution of opportunities to get a foreign degree may reinforce or exacerbate income and wealth inequality, both at the level of the metropolitan area as well as at the level of the country as a whole. Discussions of the impacts of international education on economic development should not lose sight of that.

On the receiving country side, it is important to note that international students are not spread across the country evenly. The US metropolitan areas with the most international students from 2008-2012 were New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington DC. These are all large urban centers with diversified economies and large immigrant populations. Notably, they are also all along the coastal corridors and can be counted among the centers of economic, political, and cultural power in the US. In large part because of these cities’ economic dynamism, both migrants and non-migrants with college degrees tend to stay in metropolitan areas like these rather than move elsewhere in the country.

International student advocates often argue that these students are an economic boon for their universities, the metropolitan areas in which they live, and for the receiving country economy as a whole. As students, they pay tuition and living expenses. After they graduate, they become workers, contributing their skills to the local economy. However, as evidenced in the data, the places in which they are settling are already concentrated centers of economic dynamism.

In the US, the federal government makes immigration policy, but the social and economic impact of international students is localized to certain areas of certain states. The passage of immigration and border control legislation requires the cooperation of representatives of states and sub-state regions with different experiences with non-citizens. I wonder if arguments in favor of letting international students stay to work after graduation are falling on deaf ears in some areas of the country because the supposed economic benefits that they bring are so heavily concentrated elsewhere.

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