If You Read Carefully, IIE Reports Fewer Foreign Students, More OPT Workers

By David North on November 16, 2020

If you read the document carefully, you will find that the annual report on foreign students, published by the Institute of International Education (IIE), shows over the last three years:

  • A nearly 6 percent decrease in the number of actual (enrolled) foreign students, when the 2019/2020 academic year is compared to the 2016/2017 one, but
  • An almost 29 percent increase, in the same time period, of alien alumni holding federally subsidized jobs while still on their student visas, positions that if filled by citizens would lead to no subsidy at all.

The actual numbers are these: The total of enrolled foreign students decreased from 903,127 to 851,957 between the two academic periods, but the number of recent alien graduates in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) foreign-worker program rose from 175,695 to 223,539. That means foreign workers grew from about 16 percent of the foreign "student" program to 21 percent.

The data are from the annual IIE report, released November 16 with the tell-tale title "Open Doors". It is a State Department-funded, census-like document about the number of international students here and abroad, and it is published by an organization whose name displays its point of view. It is, with emphasis added, the Institute of International Education.

Newspaper accounts of the report will talk about a 1.8 percent decrease in the number of international students from 2018/2019 to 2019/2020, but will probably fail to point out that this modest rate of decrease is only possible if you continue to count as "students" the more than 200,000 alien alumni working in the OPT program.

I have not read the full text of this year's "Open Doors" as only the data was available at this writing, but I have read earlier versions thoroughly in earlier years. In the earlier versions, the blurring of the concepts of current students and former students was always present.

What was always missing in the past — but perhaps not this year — was any reference to the subsidies paid to the employers of the OPT workers, subsidies that last from one year to three depending on the nature of the education received by these alien alumni. Longer subsidies apply to alumni who have a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) curriculum, rather than a non-STEM one.

You see, if you are a foreign college grad in this country you can be hired (while still here on your student visa) at an 8 percent discount, because the employers (and many of the alumni) need not pay payroll taxes. So an employer facing two recent grads of equal ability, and each willing to work for, say, $50,000 a year, has this choice to make if one of them is a citizen and the other is an alien "student": The employer can save $4,000 a year if he chooses the alien — a remarkable fact that, probably again this year, will be missing from reporting on the new edition of "Open Doors".

Also sure not to be mentioned in the press coverage (if past is prologue) is the fact that America's ailing, infirm, and unemployed will be providing the subsidies to these largely young and healthy aliens, as payroll taxes (when actually paid) fund the Medicare, Social Security, and federal unemployment trust funds — an irony that should, but does not, get press attention.

This report covers data secured a year ago, and the drop in the number of foreign students because of Covid-19 will presumably be much sharper when the current 2020/2021academic year is compared to the prior year, but we do not have that information in detail at the moment.