Non-U.S. Engineers Held No Threat

NEW YORK—A preliminary report on the impact of increased enrollment of foreign students in Ph.D. engineering programs in the United States concludes "there is currently little reason to be concerned"

By | May 4, 1987

NEW YORK—A preliminary report on the impact of increased enrollment of foreign students in Ph.D. engineering programs in the United States concludes "there is currently little reason to be concerned" about their effect on the ability of such programs to educate students and conduct research. But some engineers say they are disturbed by the trend.

The report, which appeared in the April 3 issue of Science, noted that more than half of all engineering doctorates awarded by U.S. institutions since 1981 have gone to foreign-born students as the number of U.S. applicants to graduate engineering departments has declined. Authors Elinor Barber, of the Institute of International Education in New York, and Robert Morgan, of Washington University in St. Louis, conclude that "it may be desirable for universities, for broader policy reasons," to encourage qualified U.S. citizens to enroll and, thus, reduce their dependence on foreign-born students. The authors received responses from 441 chairs of graduate programs in chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering and 943 faculty members.

The survey revealed a clear preference for U.S. citizens. Given students of equal quality, 87 percent preferred an American; even if the foreign students "had slightly better qualffications," the American was chosen by a better than 2-to-1 ratio.

At the same time, foreign-born faculty were more favorably disposed to foreign-born students. Only 16 percent, compared with 48 percent of American-born faculty, thought that greater effort was required to teach foreign-born students. Not surprisingly, such faculty had a higher number of foreign-born students in their classes than did U.S.-born faculty.

The major reason so few U.S. students pursue advanced engineering degrees, Morgan said, is that industries offer well-paying jobs to students with bachelor's degrees. Offered jobs at starting salaries of $25,000 to $30,000, students must have a strong interest in teaching or research careers to "put on a hair shirt" and spend five more years seeking an advanced degree, he said.

Although the presence of foreign graduate students has had no ill effect on U.S. education in general, said Barret Hazeltine, dean of engineering at Brown University, it may have harmed some individual institutions. "Foreign graduates who return to their own countries are no longer available to support the school," he said. "You'd like to have them in U.S. institutions, where they would continue to interact" and make financial contributions, often matched by their employers.

Medium-sized engineering schools probably could not exist without foreign graduate students, he added. One way to attract more U.S. students would be to offer higher stipends, according to George Burnet, a professor at Iowa State University's College of Chemical Engineering. Stipends are kept low in part because many foreign nationals are willing to accept subsistence-level support.

Alan Fechter, executive director of the office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel for the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, observed that some important research and education functions wouldn't get done without foreign graduate students. International relations benefit from foreign students studying here and taking their skills home, he said, though that transfer also contributes to overseas competition for U.S. industries. The Council this summer expects to complete a study of the impact of foreign-born engineers on U.S. universities and industry.

Meanwhile, the large number of foreign Ph.D.s in engineering has led to an increase in full-time faculty appointments for foreign-born graduates, who now make up 30.6 percent of American engineering faculties, the report said.

"Because of the cultural difference, many foreign Ph.D.s don't have a feeling for U.S. industries," said Karl Willenbrock, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education. "A group that does not communicate or understand is a detriment."

McGuire is a freelance science writer in New York.

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