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Education, innovation and economic growth

Reform of our nation's immigration system is a divisive issue and the imperative for lawmakers to produce a comprehensive bill that is both equitable and beneficial to our economy has never been more urgent.

Despite the divergent perspectives we each may hold on the complex issues surrounding immigration, there is one aspect of any such proposal that Americans should be willing to get behind because of its potential to contribute to the economic growth of Arizona and the nation. This concerns reform of immigration laws regarding the status of international students, many of whom receive advanced educations in scientific and technical fields that are critical drivers of the U.S. economy. Upon the completion of their studies, these highly trained scientists, engineers, researchers and professionals, often described as the "best and brightest," bring untold potential for discovery and innovation to our workforce and nation's laboratories. New research shows the extent to which their contributions in turn create jobs that spur our economy.

As the president of one of the nation's largest public research universities, I wish to underscore the imperative of attracting and retaining these highly educated international students and graduates. The U.S. can no longer afford to train the most talented international students in our leading institutions of higher education only to send them back overseas to compete against us in the global marketplace simply because our immigration system does not provide an opportunity for them to utilize their talent and training in our work force. Streamlining the "green card process" to allow international students who receive advanced degrees in the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - to remain in the U.S. serves our national interests.

In March, I joined David Skorton, president of Cornell University, and Eduardo Padrón, president of Miami Dade College, in an open letter addressed to academic leaders regarding this aspect of immigration reform. We cited compelling evidence of the contributions of these researchers and professionals to our economy.

For example, three-fourths of patents issued to the 10 American universities that produced the most patents in 2011 were awarded to immigrant researchers. According to research from the American Enterprise Institute and the Partnership for a New American Economy, each foreignborn American-trained advanced-degree recipient working in a STEM fi eld creates 2.62 jobs for American workers. Finally, we cited research that projects a shortage in our nation of more than 220,000 workers for jobs that require advanced STEM degrees by 2018.

The number of international students seeking enrollment at our colleges and universities attests to the perception that these institutions offer opportunities found nowhere else. Arizona figures prominently in this equation because in authoritative international assessments, both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona rank in the top 100 globally. ASU continues to be one of the top choices for international students, placing twentieth in the nation among all colleges and universities during the past two years, according to the Institute of International Education. ASU draws students from 120 countries because of the breadth of its programs and reputation for innovative academic programs and worldclass research. Not only is ASU a national leader in undergraduate STEM education but its graduate programs in these fields are among the best across the board. The university advances critical national research in such areas as earth and space science, renewable energy, advanced materials, microelectronics, healthcare, national security, and urban systems design.

Providing access to higher education to qualified Arizona students is the first phase of advancing the economic competitiveness of our state in the global knowledge economy. We leverage our most valuable assets when we build a highly skilled work force. And the issue is especially important for Arizona, because without broadly educated graduates who possess specialized cutting-edge skills requisite for success in the contemporary workplace, our state risks losing ground against more competitive regions. ASU economists estimate that just a single percentage point increase of college graduates in the Arizona workforce would in time increase aggregate earnings in the state by $2.1 billion per year. And this is to say nothing of the less quantifiable personal and social impacts of education.

Retaining highly educated international students in the work force is similarly essential to the competitiveness and prosperity of our region. Arizona is poised to become one of America's leading centers for innovation-based economic development, with potential for global leadership in a range of industries, including the biosciences, solar energy, aerospace, and defense. Already among the 10 leading states nationally in the conduct of scientific and technologically oriented economic activity, Arizona depends on the growth of our innovative capacity to create new companies and encourage others to relocate here, spurring job growth and boosting tax revenues and overall prosperity. Support for smart immigration reform to retain this talent is about both economics and equity. The decisions we make regarding whom we educate and whom we exclude from our work force and laboratories will impact all of us.

Michael M. Crow is President of Arizona State University.


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