STEM student visa bill would strengthen GW programs

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill Friday that would draw more foreign students to graduate science, technology, engineering and math programs and could increase GW’s admissions selectivity – though it has become the target of political opposition.

The bill would create 55,000 additional working visas for foreigners who receive advanced degrees in STEM fields from American universities, intended to encourage international students to stay in the U.S. after graduating.

But the bill drew harsh criticism from the White House last week, with a spokesperson for Barack Obama describing it as a set of “narrowly tailored proposals that do not meet the President’s long-term objectives” in a release. The STEM visas would replace a green card lottery system that previously allowed foreigners from countries with typically low immigration rates, such as African nations, into the U.S.

The Republican-backed bill will likely fail in the Democrat-controlled Senate, as it passed the House with votes cast largely along party lines. Representatives shot down a similar bill in September.

Some organizations have also attacked the bill, like the National Association on Foreign Student Advisors’s Association of International Educators, which announced its opposition to the bill last week, saying “it perpetuates a divisive, us-versus-them approach to immigration reform.”

Engineering professor Charles Garris said the bill would increase the number of international students who would want to study STEM fields at GW, because they would have an easier time staying and working in the country after graduation.

“There are fine international students in the STEM areas here, and this bill will only attract more,” Garris said. “GW has a good international reputation, and a bill like this will only increase our image and our competitiveness internationally.”

Nearly 30 percent of all graduate students in SEAS were foreign last year, the most foreign students in any of GW’s 10 schools.

Last May, Forbes Magazine ranked D.C. as the No. 2 city in the nation for job growth in STEM fields. Jobs in D.C. science and engineering industries have increased more than 20 percent since 2001.

A potential influx of applications could also mean stronger applicant pools for GW just a few years before it will open the $275 million Science and Engineering Hall. The academic complex will add thousands of feet of lab space as GW looks to become a top-tier research institution.

Garris said the move could also help alleviate the American scientist and engineer shortages facing companies around the U.S.

“Americans typically don’t go further into the STEM doctoral programs because they are more interested in getting jobs and getting into business and making money. They don’t have any interest in sitting in a laboratory knocking their heads together,” Garris said.

James Brown, an alumnus and executive director of the lobbying group the STEM Education Coalition, said many of the 500 businesses and professionals in his network complain that there are not enough advanced STEM graduates in America.

“There’s a very shortage of real talent out there. They’re challenged to hire people with the right skills,” Brown said.

He added that companies support the bill but acknowledge that it is short-sighted. To create real immigration reform, he said, there needs to be a focus on the big picture of how to institutionalize a greater number of STEM graduates and job seekers in America each year.

“We want the smartest people in the world studying and working in the United States. It doesn’t make sense to provide them with a world class education in a field and then we lose them to going back to their home country because they can’t get a visa,” Brown said.

Chloé Sorvinocontributed to this report.

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