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US Shouldn't Shut the Door on Chinese Students

March 23, 2018
Chinese students receive 10% of all doctorates with 80% staying in the U.S. In fact, there are more Chinese engineers working on artificial intelligence at U.S. technology companies than in all of China.

As part of its continuing campaign to prevent China from stealing American intellectual property, President Donald Trump's administration is considering restrictions on the number of Chinese citizens enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. Targeting foreign students will undermine U.S. competitiveness, not enhance it.

Of the 1 million foreign nationals enrolled at U.S. schools, nearly one-third are from China -- double the number of any other country.

Chinese students receive 10% of all doctorates awarded in the U.S., most of them in science and engineering. Some 80% of Chinese doctoral holders stay in the U.S. and work after they earn their degrees. There are more Chinese engineers working on artificial intelligence at U.S. technology companies than in all of China.

The gains to the U.S. economy aren't limited to Silicon Valley. Chinese students spend at least $12 billion a year on tuition and living expenses -- money that supports hundreds of thousands of jobs in and around college campuses. High fees for international students subsidize tuition for U.S. citizens and -- until recently -- have helped public universities offset cuts in government funding.

Such benefits are largely dismissed by those who cast Chinese students in the U.S. as national-security threats. President Trump's National Security Strategy calls for the government to consider restrictions on "foreign STEM students from designated countries to ensure that intellectual property is not transferred to our competitors."

The U.S. can and should do more to counter Chinese theft of American trade secrets. But only a tiny fraction of students from China have ever been charged with illegal activity. Singling them out would be both discriminatory and dangerous, potentially fueling suspicion of law-abiding Americans of Chinese descent.

The most sensible strategy to protect the country's intellectual property isn't to keep talented foreign students out, but to encourage them to stay in the U.S. and put their knowledge to use -- by joining the workforce or starting a business. That's the purpose of the Optional Practical Training program, which allows foreign students who earn degrees in technical fields to work in the U.S. for up to three years. The Trump administration, true to form, wants to cut the program instead.

Whether the president imposes new quotas on Chinese students, the goal of some of his advisers seems clear: to make "designated" foreigners unwelcome on U.S. campuses. That's not only un-American, but also self-defeating. 

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