National Data | If We Need Immigrant PhDs, Why Are American PhDs Poor And Unemployed?
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There they go again. Another report on the (allegedly) vital role of immigrants in the U.S. science and engineering workforce—implicitly bemoaning the competence of native-born Americans. 

Says the author of the report, Stuart Anderson, Executive Director of the National Foundation for American Policy and a notorious Beltway Conservative immigration enthusiast:

"If those who most oppose immigration had succeeded over the past two decades, two-thirds of the most outstanding future scientists and mathematicians in the United States would not be in the country…" [Stuart Anderson, "The Multiplier Effect," Summer 2004, International Educator,

Anderson's "evidence" is amazingly thin, mere factoids like "Seven of the top 10 award winners of the Intel Science Talent Search in 2004 were immigrants or their children."

Nevertheless, he goes on to urge expansion of high-tech immigration programs like H-1b and student visas.

In fact, the long-increasing propensity of Americans to get high-tech PhDs does seem to have come to a screeching halt: [Table1.]

  • The number science Ph.D.s awarded to U.S. citizens rose from 11,408 in 1987 to 13,672 in 1998.


  • But in 2002 (latest year of data), only 12,423 U.S. citizens received a Ph.D. in science


  • The number of engineering PhDs. awarded to U.S. citizens rose from 1,887 in 1987 to 3,516 in 1996.


  • But in 2002, only 1,890 engineering Ph.D.s were awarded to U.S. citizens

And non-U.S. citizens have certainly garnered an increasing share of advanced degrees:

  • Non-citizens received 32 percent of all science Ph.D.s awarded in 2002, up from 24 percent in 1987


  • Non-citizens received 61 percent of engineering Ph.D.s awarded in 2002, up from 55 percent in 1987

But there's a very good reason for the waning presence of Americans in science and engineering: the dismal career prospects facing them in a field increasingly inundated by foreign students.

According to a National Research Council study: [National Research Council, Building a Workforce for the Information Economy, National Academies Press, 2001.]


  • Income foregone during a 5-year doctoral program exceeds the additional income received over the course of a native-born graduate's working lifetime

The National Science Foundation explicitly acknowledges the problem, saying that for American students "the effective premium for acquiring a Ph.D may actually be negative."

Yet, paradoxically, NSF makes matters worse by advocating special programs to increase the number of foreign doctoral students.

The perception of a high-tech labor "shortage" is firmly entrenched and drives much immigration policy.

But if such a shortage were real, unemployment in science and engineering fields would be declining. And exactly the opposite is happening [Table 2]:

  • Unemployment among college-educated science and engineering personnel is at a 20-year high (3.9 percent in 2002, the latest year of data.)


  • Unemployment among computer programmers is also at a 20-year high (6.5 percent). It has risen 4-fold since 2000

These unemployment rates understate the problem. They do not count people with science and engineering degrees who've left the field involuntarily for other jobs. NSF data indicate about three-quarters of science degree holders eventually end up in non-science occupations.

If Mr. Anderson and his ilk have their way, foreign science students will simply continue to displace Americans in academia and the workplace.

There's nothing magic or mysterious about this. Employers have simply gotten the government to sandbag labor—in this case, educated labor.

But only an immigration enthusiast would argue that it's moral.

[Number fans click here for tables.]

Edwin S. Rubenstein (email him) is President of ESR Research Economic Consultants in Indianapolis.

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