Each year, the United States’ institutions of higher learning draw students from around the world, eager to obtain the superior education offered by American universities and the entrepreneurial spirit that they foster. Among these students may very well be the minds that spearhead the creation of groundbreaking businesses and technologies that will change the way we experience the world.
But will Americans be able benefit from the fruits of these students’ creativity, drive, and education? Chances are that they will not, given current immigration policy that makes it very difficult for foreign graduates—even those with advanced degrees—to remain in America.
Take the story of Abhinav Sureka. Abhinav is an Indian student and entrepreneur with a master’s degree from Babson College in Massachusetts, and is currently in a limbo as he waits to see if he wins the H-1B lottery and be able to stay in the U.S. His company has raised so far $73,000. Given the success he has already demonstrated, Abhinav should be given the opportunity to further build his company in Massachusetts.
The United States should be instituting policies that facilitate retention of these high-value students, rather than forcing them to take their skills and talent elsewhere. Luckily there is a solution: schools, cities, and states can launch global entrepreneur-in-residence (EIR) programs, which offer students the ability to stay in the U.S. and continue to incubate their ideas here. This ensures that the innovations and business plans they develop in school stay close to campus and create jobs for locals and spur local economies.
Universities are in a unique position in that they are exempt from high-skill visa caps. Therefore, universities can hire foreign graduates to work part-time as mentors, lecturers, or researchers on campus.
They would then be left free to spend the rest of their time building their startups, therefore injecting energy and opportunity into the local economy. Because the university provides the initial work authorization, an EIR can eventually be sponsored for a high-skilled visa by his or her startup firm, without having to go through the lottery process used to allocate the capped number of visas.
It’s a win-win-win: the entrepreneur gets to stay and build the startup, the university encourages a culture of entrepreneurship on campus, and the surrounding community reaps the benefits of new companies that create jobs and services for locals.
To qualify for the EIR program, foreign students must be in a leadership position at an early-stage venture, have a masters degree or higher in a STEM or business field, and house their company locally. Since 2014, 20 entrepreneurs have been awarded visas. Those students have created 261 jobs and raised $118.5M in private investment.
Such programs have already proven to be success stories. The first EIR program took root in Massachusetts, home to some of the world’s top universities and some 50,000 foreign college students. It’s estimated that more than a thousand foreign entrepreneurs leave the state annually due to visa restrictions, but the Massachusetts EIR program has begun offering work authorization to keep those entrepreneurs in the Bay State.
The idea is catching on. The University of Colorado Boulder recently launched its own program and, earlier this year, seven City University of New York campuses announced they are initiating a program for 80 entrepreneurs. Two universities in Alaska are in the process of setting up EIR programs as well.
While the total number of students remains relatively low for the time being, the possibilites from scaling up represent big potential gains in the pursuit of a more dynamic economy.
The popular fear that immigrants take jobs from Americans is particularly unfounded in this context. Entrepreneurs create new businesses and new jobs—therefore, not only are the not snatching existing jobs from Americans, but they are creating jobs for Americans.
Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, has found that the addition of one high-tech job in a metropolitan area is associated with the addition of five additional service sector jobs—both in high-skilled and less-skilled occupations. Because foreign entrepreneurs create new jobs for Americans, immigration policy should be especially hospitable to them.
Failing to accommodate promising foreign graduates, particularly those with viable business ideas, doesn’t help Americans. On the contrary, when we force the ideas, talent, and initiative nurtured by American universities to head for the airport, we squander one of the chief benefits of our top-tier educational system and blunt our economy’s competitive edge. American workers lose out on jobs. American cities lose out on tax revenues. The economy as a whole loses out on the compounding effects of added growth.
University programs that, with the support of surrounding cities and states, allow foreign entrepreneurs to stay in the U.S. show just how beneficial high-skilled immigration can be. Congress should facilitate growth and job-creation by raising the cap on high-skilled visas. But until it does this, entrepreneur-in-residence programs offer a great way to retain top foreign talent, and create wealth and job opportunities for Americans.
Op-ed co-authored by Matthew La Corte and Brandon Fuller; originally published in Forbes