How Changes to U.S. Immigration Policy and H-1B Visas Could Impact Engineering Education

Two engineering school deans reflect on the consequences new policies might have on enrollment and classroom diversity

16 March 2017

Universities in the United States have long been a mecca for the best and brightest minds from around the world to earn a quality education, especially in technical fields. The current administration’s immigration and pending work visa policies might impact that notion with the potential to have unintended consequences on education and hence innovation and the economy in the long run.

With the 1 April deadline for applicants to file H-1B applications looming, no big changes to the program have been announced. H-1B visas allow employers to recruit and employ non-U.S. workers in specialty occupations, such as engineering, for a specified period of time. Many people, including IEEE-USA leaders, want to see its reform, because the visas often outsource jobs at the expense of American workers as well as international students educated at U.S. universities.

To understand how immigration and visa reform could affect engineering education and students in the country, The Institute interviewed two top engineering school leaders: IEEE Life Fellow Leah Jamieson, 2006 IEEE president, dean of engineering at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Ind.; and Sharon Wood, dean of the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas, Austin. Cockrell has an equal-opportunity program to ensure diversity.

Why is it important to have a diverse student body?

Wood: The engineering challenges facing our society are complex, and they require new solutions. Diversity within our student body brings diversity of thought and perspective—which often leads to creative concepts that we wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

Jamieson: Industry figured out decades ago that the quality of innovation is tied to the diversity of the people contributing to the solution. Cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, economic, and other diversity enhances students’ educational experiences and the creativity of research conducted at universities. One of the biggest changes in engineering education over the past 20 years has been the growing importance of team-based projects. Experience on multicultural teams has become necessary as a reflection of the global nature of companies today that they will almost certainly work for.

Is the current political climate regarding immigration affecting students? Are you concerned how it will impact enrollment in your program?

Jamieson: Tangible effects of the political climate include reluctance to travel and concerns about job prospects. Universities have a long history of being places where ideas can be discussed and where free speech is a core value. I have deep concerns about the climate for students when free speech includes hate speech.

Wood: Approximately half our graduate students are international students and rely on student visas to enter the country. Many are concerned that if they leave the United States, they may not be able to return. In addition, many of our undergraduate students are children or grandchildren of immigrants—both legal and undocumented—and they have strong cultural ties to their communities. They feel the value of these communities to U.S. society is being questioned.

Are you worried that fewer international students might apply to your school?

Jamieson: Colleges are seeing a decline in the number of applications from international students. This was highlighted in the journal Science last month. Further uncertainty about immigration policy is likely to continue the decline. Plus, the unpredictability of the U.S. government’s actions related to immigration will almost certainly make it difficult for universities to predict how many admitted students will choose to study at their schools.

Wood: Fewer international students are currently applying to graduate school at the University of Texas and across the country. However, only 5 percent of our undergraduate class is international students, and we have not noticed a decrease in these applications.

How could H-1B visa reform affect enrollment and diversity?

Wood: H-1B visa reform could influence our ability to hire faculty and could further reduce the number of international students in our graduate programs. We have many outstanding faculty who first held H-1B visas and are not U.S. citizens. They have brought their talents to our country, have helped develop innovations that advance society, and have educated generations of successful engineers.

Jamieson: If changes in the H-1B visa program reduce the likelihood that international students and their spouses will be able to work in the United States, the value of an engineering degree from U.S. universities will presumably be diminished.

Fewer international students will result in less culturally diverse student populations—which will diminish the quality of the university experience for all students. Because U.S. students have been applying for admission to graduate school in smaller numbers, fewer international students applying will lead to a shrinking pool of researchers and a reduced ability to conduct cutting-edge research in the country.

What about students who are already enrolled at school? Are they concerned about getting jobs? How could the job situation change with fewer or more restricted H-1B visas?

Jamieson: Yes, they are concerned. The path to an H-1B visa has never been viewed as easy, and the current uncertainty about immigration policy makes the anxiety about getting jobs in the United States even greater. In the long term, reductions in visas and in expedited visa processing will decrease the national competitiveness of the high-tech industry in the country, including the “industry” of educating future engineers.

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