Wouldn't you think that before taking a step with potentially momentous long-term consequences for important national institutions, leaders would try to discern the likely effects? If the subject is high-skilled immigration, that supposition would be wrong. With President Barack Obama pushing for action on immigration reform "as soon as possible," we may be only weeks away from congressional consideration of the widely touted proposal to "staple a green card" to every STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduate degree issued in the United States.

Politicians promote this provision as a solution to a mythical technical talent shortage and a boost to innovation and economic growth. (As The Washington Post points out, they may also have in mind the massive political contributions and lobbying efforts by large employers of STEM workers.) Actual experts on the science labor force, however, see quite different possibilities: a financial bonanza for universities, economic benefits for employers, and even harder times ahead for STEM workers, who are already struggling.

"The incentives are all aligned to create massive downward pressures on the labor market" should "stapling" become a reality, says Hal Salzman of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "It will lower costs in the labor market and effectively disincentivize people to go into [STEM] fields. It diminishes the quality of the jobs. The good Americans [will] go elsewhere."

Salzman notes, however, that he can only estimate the likely scope of the fallout because, as he and co-authors Daniel Kuehn, a Ph.D. student at American University , and B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration, both in Washington, D.C., write in a forthcoming research study made available to Science Careers: "[T]here has been no comprehensive assessment of the potential impact this provision would have on colleges, students, or the workforce." Nonetheless, Saltzman believes, by extrapolating from the study's findings and considering what we know about postdoctoral appointments and certain visa programs, we can paint a probable picture of things to come.

A market transformed

Entitled "Guestworkers in the U.S. Labor Market: Analysis of Supply and Employment Trends of the IT Workforce" and scheduled for publication by the Economic Policy Institute later this month, the study examines the "best available evidence" about the effects of high-skilled foreign workers on a particular segment of the STEM labor market. It finds that "the STEM and IT labor markets appear to be responsive to standard economic signals of wage levels and unemployment rates." During the 1990s tech boom, for example, "the IT industry was able to attract increasing numbers of domestic graduates during periods of rising wages and employment, leading to a peak in wages and numbers of computer science graduates in the early 2000s." 

Since then, however, a large and continuing flow of foreign IT workers on temporary visas has caused drastic change. "The IT industry [now] appears to be functioning with two distinct market patterns: a domestic supply (of workers and students) that responds to wage signals (and other aspects of working conditions such as future career prospects) and a guestworker supply that appears to be available independent of standard wage and employment signals, plentiful even when wages decline or are stagnant. … [T]he flow of guestworkers from low-wage countries appear[s] to provide firms access to labor … in plentiful supply at wages … too low to induce increased supply from the domestic workforce."   

After rising rapidly during the dot-com boom, "wages in IT have been flat for about 12 years," Salzman says. "Wages today are what they were in 1998–99." As a result, science "[i]s not thought of as a good career."

The effects on domestic workers have been unfavorable, the study finds. A year after receiving their degrees, for example, a third of domestic computer science graduates and almost half of domestic engineering graduates do work unrelated to their major fields. Half of these computer science graduates say they found a better job doing something else; a third say they could find no IT job. Guestworkers, meanwhile, constitute "between a third to a half of the number of all new IT job-holders," the study states. 

It is apparent that depressed wages and career opportunities have discouraged Americans from pursuing IT and other STEM careers, but the inestimable benefit of entry into the United States makes guestworker jobs attractive to many hundreds of thousands of foreigners.

The chance to gain permanent residence simply by earning a degree would be a far more powerful draw, Salzman predicts.

An irresistible business model

For universities under intense and increasing fiscal pressures because of funding cuts, Salzman says, "stapling" combines with the realities of academic finance to create a nearly irresistible business opportunity—but one with consequences for domestic students and workers that are likely to be very detrimental. Universities have long used temporary visas to recruit large numbers of international postdocs and graduate students as highly skilled but low-paid lab workers, flooding the labor market and creating conditions of exploitation well recognized by many authorities. In addition, Guestworkers notes, institutions ranging from fraudulent, fly-by-night diploma mills to reputable, established universities exploit other financial incentives in the current student visa system to attract foreign students for their own financial benefit. 

Two visa programs, the Optional Practical Training (OPT) and Curricular Practical Training, already provide routes of entry for foreign students into the American work force by allowing students and graduates, respectively, to work temporarily at jobs related to their major subjects. Employment can last up to 29 months under the so-called STEM OPT extension. "The institutions with some of the highest ratios of STEM OPT-extension awards to enrollments," which Salzman and co-authors calculated, turned out in a separate "2011 Chronicle of Higher Education investigation [link added] to be institutions that target foreign students as the primary population for their programs," Guestworkers states. 

"If a U.S. STEM degree becomes the route to permanent residency, it can be expected to increase the number of foreign students seeking admission to U.S. colleges," Guestworker continues. Meeting that demand, especially at the master's degree level, can be an extremely lucrative proposition, Salzman adds in the interview. "Master’s programs in general are moneymakers for colleges, and foreign students bring in more [than domestic students] because you give them less aid." Programs can keep expenses low by teaching students in large cohorts rather than with the individuality of doctoral programs. "If you staff [courses] with part-time adjunct lecturers, it's even cheaper." As the Chronicle article's headline notes, "Little-Known Colleges Exploit Visa Loopholes to Make Millions Off Foreign Students."

"The incentives are all lined up for expanding masters programs to target foreign students as way for universities to generate revenue and as a way to bring in cheap labor for the science and engineering technology workforce," says Salzman, who foresees massive growth in both moneymaking graduate programs and the numbers of their graduates entering the already glutted STEM labor market. "All these things line up. Foreign students become the perfect target population for maximizing revenue and lowering your costs." 

This spring, the model that Salzman describes almost became reality in the California State University (Cal State) system. Last summer, reported the San Jose Mercury-News, leaders of the system's 23 campuses learned that "they will not be allowed to admit California graduate students for the spring term, which starts in January [2013].  Budget cuts made the system in the coming spring term unable to afford residents' heavily discounted education, campus leaders were told. But nonresident students—who pay considerably higher fees—remain welcome."

At Cal State, East Bay, graduate biology coordinator Maria Nieto planned to admit no graduate students rather than exclude Californians. In that San Jose Mercury News article, math and computer science chair Matt Johnson called the exclusion policy "grossly unfair." Still, he decided to admit a spring graduate class because, as he noted in Inside Higher Ed, his program's enrollment is already 90% foreign. "[W]e're probably talking about one or two" excluded Californians as opposed to 50 newly admitted foreign students, he told Inside Higher Ed. In November, California voters eased the state's budget crisis by approving a substantial tax increase, making Cal State's admissions plans unnecessary.

More than a year earlier, at a July 2011 Senate hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley (R–IA) worried that "stapling" would make American universities "in essence … visa mills" and "further erode" American students' opportunities. The time has come for his colleagues in both houses to take a close look at the proposed provision's likely effects to keep those fears from coming true.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300063