Losing Our Intellectual Edge


We’ve addressed this several times over the past year:  Initially, last January (Is the balance of scientific power shifting?) and then again in October (Economics, Security, and the Decline of the US Creative Class).

Now, the story is on the front page of the NYT:  U.S. Slips in Attracting the World’s Best Students. Here’s an excerpt:

"What we’re starting to see in terms of international students now having options outside the U.S. for high-quality education is just the tip of the iceberg," said David G. Payne, an executive director of the Educational Testing Service, which administers several tests taken by foreign students to gain admission to American universities. "Other countries are just starting to expand their capacity for offering graduate education. In the future, foreign students will have far greater opportunities."

Foreign students contribute $13 billion to the American economy annually. But this year brought clear signs that the United States’ overwhelming dominance of international higher education may be ending. In July, Mr. Payne briefed the National Academy of Sciences on a sharp plunge in the number of students from India and China who had taken the most recent administration of the Graduate Record Exam, a requirement for applying to most graduate schools; it had dropped by half.

click for larger graphic

chart courtesy of NYT

The Times notes that while "foreign applications to American graduate schools declined 28 percent this year," actual foreign graduate student enrollments dropped 6 percent. Enrollments of all foreign students, in undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral programs, fell for the first time in three decades in an annual census released this fall.

Where are the students actualy going instead? "University enrollments have been surging in England, Germany and other countries."

I suspect sloppy administration of post 9/11 security rules are in large part to blame.



U.S. Slips in Attracting the World’s Best Students
Sam Dillon
NY Times, December 21, 2004


Is the balance of scientific power shifting?

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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web:
  1. Dave Schuler commented on Dec 22

    On a related topic it’s frequently asked why so few American-born students study the sciences. The answer usually given is that they’re lazy. That’s a lie. The actual answer is that it’s difficult to prosper in the sciences here (except biomed). For a physicist to get a job in this country a physicist needs to die (or retire; but many physicists literally die in harness). That’s been true for a generation or more. It’s increasingly true for chemists as well (again, except in biomed).

    The unemployment rate for electrical engineers in the U. S. is holding steady at around 8%. Discouraged engineers are working in fast-food joints or Wal-Mart to support their families.

    American-born students are smart enough to go where the action is and it ain’t the sciences.

  2. fester commented on Dec 22

    I blogged on this theme about a month ago as NATURE was reporting a significant drop in grad school enrollment by non-US nationals. This is an odd case, and illustrative that costs do not explain everything as the cost of a US college education in real terms is getting cheaper for international students due to the falling dollar against the Euro, Yen and Won, especially compared to the enrollment decisions and cost structures for students who came in the late 90s.

    My guess is the same as yours; political restrictions on cool research areas (stem cells), a political ideology that is against intellectualism, and then the damm hassle of immigration, security and everything else is scaring the marginal attenders away.

  3. PoliBlog: Politics is the Master Science commented on Dec 22

    Decline in Foreign Students to US Universities?

    Via the NYT: U.S. Slips in Attracting the World’s Best StudentsForeign students contribute $13 billion to the American economy annually. But this year brought clear signs that the United States’ overwhelming dominance of international higher educati…

  4. Jon H commented on Dec 22

    As for enrollment in Computer Science graduate programs, it simply hasn’t been cost-effective. The salary boost you get from a Master’s degree puts you at the same level you’d be at if you’d worked the two years. Meanwhile, you’ve forgone two years of salary, and probably gone into debt.

    That’s all before the current slump in hiring gets added in.

    A good source of information is at

  5. Jon H commented on Dec 22

    I’m talking about American students in my comment above. Just to be clear.

  6. Dave S. commented on Dec 23

    A 6% decline in enrollment by foreign students and we are losing our edge?

  7. Barry Ritholtz commented on Dec 23

    Consider: Context, trend, macro-perspective, and most likely outcome. That’s the significance of this to me;

    Your post isolates a single data point and draws a false (actually empty set) conclusion; By isolating a single point, in stead of the longer trend, you fail to recognize the value of the data. To you, its worthless.

    Its easy to flippant in abstract philosophical issues; In my arena — equites and markets — its not just opining but real dollars. If this were a stock, instead of mere rhetorical discussion, I’d be short and you would be long (and IMHO wrong).

    Sold to you.

  8. glory commented on Dec 24

    fareed zakaria wrote about this recently in newsweek:

    Rejecting the Next Bill Gates
    The dirty secret about our scientific edge is that it’s largely produced by foreigners and immigrants. Americans don’t do science.

    former intel exec’s andy grove and craig barrett have also raised concerns:


    Both Grove and Barrett have cited systemic deficiencies in the US system (concerns shared in Europe too)…

    Grove suggested that by 2010 India would employ more software and services staff than the United States. Federal research funding in engineering had fallen 22 per cent and in the physical sciences by 30 per cent, he noted. By contrast, China’s managed capitalism was paying dividends. Grove also pointed to the $4 billion lost on intellectual property litigation. He compared the $30,000,000,000 subsidies received by agribusiness to the $1 billion a year he claimed was enough to reverse the lack of competitiveness.

    Today, Barrett said that he needed to build plant closest to growing markets: and while the Americas and EMEA are shrinking in market share (down from 32 to 28 per cent and 23 to 21 per cent respectively, year on year), Asia is growing.

    Barrett continued Grove’s theme that the US was prepared to subsidize what he called “19th century industries” but not education to help technology investment.

    “Fifty percent of advanced degrees go to foreign nationals,” said Barrett. “We educate these people at taxpayer expense. They should staple a green card to their diplomas and let them stay here,” he said.

  9. Jon H commented on Dec 24

    “fareed zakaria wrote about this recently in newsweek:

    Rejecting the Next Bill Gates”

    Which is completely wrong-headed, and shows a real ignorance.

    Bill Gates dropped out of college, after all. Nor is he much of a scientist or technologist. He’s a shrewd businessman, and his contributions to the field have been in that mode. He has no particular inventions to his name that really made a difference. He bought DOS from someone else, after all. In the ranks of computer scientists, Bill Gates probably isn’t in the top 1,000. Maybe not the top 10,000.

    But he’s a great businessman.

    The next Bill Gates won’t be coming here on a student visa. Nor will the next Bill Gates be coming here as an H1-B or a L1, to work for someone else. Being “the next Bill Gates” pretty much requires that the person have his or her own company from the start, does it not?

    Now, if Zakaria had mentioned Steve Jobs… oh, wait, he didn’t finish college, either. Nor is he a scientist. He’s a great marketer, and he has a knack for attracting talent and getting the best out of them, but he’s no scientist.

    As for Craig Barrett, here’s something else he’s said:

    “The half-life of an engineer, software, hardware engineer is only a few years…”

    If Craig Barrett says that, why on earth should anyone pursue a field in which they will quickly become obsolete and unemployable?

    Intel has a record of age discrimination. They don’t want scientists, they want young, cheap scientists. And lots of them coming out of schools, to keep salaries down.

    Intel isn’t even that interested in hiring PhDs. UC Davis professor Norman Matloff writes, “On October 13, 1999, a team of Intel engineers recruiting for new graduates visited my department at UC Davis. I mentioned that I had a couple of PhDs in electrical engineering I could refer to them, one a new graduate and the other a 1992 graduate. In reply one of the Intel recruiters blurted out, “No, Intel is not very interested in PhDs.” The other added that she did not think a PhD would have enough to challenge him or her at Intel, except in the case of very highly specialized research areas.”

    Craig Barrett is not a man to be trusted.

  10. Jon H commented on Dec 24

    Why don’t more American students pursue PhD’s? It’s by design:

    the federal government’s National Science Foundation (NSF) actually promoted policies which they knew would result in low enrollments of domestic students in PhD programs. As we will explain later in our section on the use of H-1Bs as a source of cheap labor (Sec. 9.2.2), MIT mathematician/economist Eric Weinstein found that the NSF actually planned to hold down PhD wages by bringing in a glut of foreign scientists and engineers. The NSF documents reveal that NSF realized that by holding down PhD salaries they would cause domestic students to lose interest in PhD programs, while foreign students would still enroll in those programs as steppingstones to immigration.

    Since the lobby for increased H-1B quotas has often made use of data provided by allies in the NSF, Dr. Weinstein’s discoveries take on special significance. NSF, which is now complaining that not enough domestic students pursue PhDs, actually planned for that to occur.”


  11. California commented on Dec 24

    Your post isolates a single data point and draws a false (actually empty set) conclusion…In my arena — equites and markets — its not just opining but real dollars. If this were a stock, instead of mere rhetorical discussion, I’d be short and you would be long (and IMHO wrong).

    How pretentious.
    If you have contervailing evidence that the conclusion is false, why not share it with us? What longer trend renders it invalid?

  12. bhaim commented on Dec 24

    Here’s Jonathan Katz tenured professor of physics in his essay “Don’t Become a Scientist !”:

    The first thing for any young person (which means anyone who does not have a permanent job in science) to do is to pursue another career. This will spare you the misery of disappointed expectations. Young Americans have generally woken up to the bad prospects and absence of a reasonable middle class career path in science and are deserting it. If you haven’t yet, then join them. Leave graduate school to people from India and China, for whom the prospects at home are even worse. I have known more people whose lives have been ruined by getting a Ph.D. in physics than by drugs.

    If you are in a position of leadership in science then you should try to persuade the funding agencies to train fewer Ph.D.s. The glut of scientists is entirely the consequence of funding policies (almost all graduate education is paid for by federal grants). The funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career. They could reverse this situation by matching the number trained to the demand, but they refuse to do so, or even to discuss the problem seriously (for many years the NSF propagated a dishonest prediction of a coming shortage of scientists, and most funding agencies still act as if this were true). The result is that the best young people, who should go into science, sensibly refuse to do so, and the graduate schools are filled with weak American students and with foreigners lured by the American student visa.

  13. Jon H commented on Dec 25

    Yet another thing that has kept Americans from studying engineering or computer science at the graduate level has been the simple fact that you didn’t *need* a graduate degree to have a good career in the field.

    I get the impression that, in fields like economics, or international relations, graduate study is pretty much required if you want to work in economics. Indeed, the graduate degrees may be considerably more important than the undergrad, which need not be in the same subject.

    Pundits and talking heads (like Fareed Zakaria) tend to come from such backgrounds, and operate in organizations that place heavy emphasis on academic credentials, so perhaps they have a hard time getting their heads around the idea of not needing a graduate degree, leading to claims of American student “laziness”.

    (The pundit’s underlying thought here is probably that *he* and his peers were industrious enough to get *their* PhDs, unlike those slacking techies. In reality, they simply had no choice if they wanted to have any kind of career.)

    To the extent that graduate study has been useful for technologists and scientists, an MBA has probably been more worthwhile – and then perhaps not because of the academics, but because of the business contacts that can be made.

  14. scienceguy11 commented on Dec 13

    Sadly, I Katz’s comments… while perhaps a bit exaggerated… are more-or-less on the mark.

    I’m a scientist (ivy league PhD, ’01) and was one of the lucky few to land a steady job in research science within a few years of getting my PhD. I’m not a professor, but a staff scientist at a government lab. Anyway, the majority of those in my graduate school class (probably around 70 %) either quit the field entirely or are still in post-doc purgatory. Note that the ones who quit with a masters degree are, by far, the best off financially… despite the fact that those of us in the program were arrogant enough to consider leaving with a masters as a “failure.”

    You can read up on the post-doc trap if you like, just google it. Whatever you do, make sure you don’t end up on that treadmill for too long. A post-doc can be a great opportunity to try new science and, in certain cases, work in interesting places. However, it’s usually true that the “post-doc” experience doesn’t live up to its promise. It’s advertised as “post-doctoral training” but the word “training” is inserted, more often than not, so that those who apply can be paid far less than they’re worth… specifically because their employers know how difficult it can be to get a job doing research.

    Ask yourself this… what kind of “training” position requires, as a prerequisite, the highest degree in the land? Okay… you might say… “but MD’s go through a residency period too.” Sure, but MDs enter a residency program in order to specialize in a particular subfield of medicine. In contrast, profs are looking to hire post-docs with backgrounds and specific skill sets to implement/augment their research programs. You can have a phd in a related subject and still be rejected because your training wasn’t extensive enough in the right subfield. If you’re hired for your specific expertise in the first place, does it make sense to call the position a “training” period? I suppose it’s an open issue for debate, but I see a certain level of unfairness here… particularly given that exactly what the post-docs are “training” for is not always terribly clear. The likelihood that any given post-doc (particularly at lower-end institutions) will get the kind of academic job in which they will actually use their “training” is comparatively low. In contrast, a radiology resident who successfully completes the program is nearly guaranteed a job as a radiology specialist.

    I’m a bit disgusted, frankly, with how little we pay our post-docs and how we treat them. It’s endemic to the system – science is structured to eat its young. We string people along for years on the mere, faint hope that they’ll someday get a permanent position. Yet, the longer they remain in the “training” program, the more valuable their skills become to the principal scientist… thus the lower the incentive for that principal scientist to fulfill his part of the “training” bargain and help the post-doc find real work. I’ve seen this kind of abuse first-hand while collaborating with a well-known academic group. It can be especially egregious and flagrant in the case of foreign-citizens whose visa status is tied to the post-doctoral “advisor.” I recall one instance in which a PhD chemist from Asia (who was in this country because her husband had found a job) worked for the better part of a year without pay because her “advisor” promised to help her obtain a work visa. This is technically illegal and probably atypical, but the point is that these positions are so ill-defined and policing so infrequent that the system is rife with abuse.

    Beware of excessive post-docing. It can kill your spirit and rob you of your youth. That being said, I understand and sympathize with all who want to make research a career. It’s a path that has many, many rewards… both intellectual and personal. I’m not recommending against trying it… I’m just saying that if you’re on your second or third post-doc, it’s time to look elsewhere even if your advisor tells you that work is just around the corner. It probably isn’t… there are far more people with PhD’s in the sciences than there are permanent positions.

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