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The Impact of International Students on the U.S. Economy

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The Economic Impact of International Students on the U.S. Economy

The Economic Impact of America’s International Students

For decades, the U.S. has been the top destination for students looking to study abroad.

It’s easy to see why. Not only does the country provide access to world-class economic hubs like Silicon Valley, but the U.S. is also home to 14 of the top 20 universities in the world, many of which are famed for their research and alumni networks.

Yet, there is cause for concern.

International enrollments in the U.S. have slowed, while other countries are attracting a larger share of the global talent pool. To help us understand what’s at stake if enrollments continue to decline, today’s infographic shows the impact of international students on the U.S. economy.

Driving American Innovation and Growth

International students and scholars are a vital economic asset, and America’s ability to attract them puts the country in an enviable position.

First, there are the direct economic benefits which result from tuition fees and living expenses. Throughout the 2018/2019 school year, these benefits totaled $41 billion, a comparable value to many other American exports:

ExportValue (2018)
Automobiles$158B
Commercial Aircraft$131B
Pharmaceuticals$51B
Education Exports$41B
Telecommunications Equipment$36B
Soybeans$17B

Source: NAFSA, Evans, WorldCity

Even after graduation, however, international students and scholars continue to make significant contributions to the U.S. economy.

For example, attracting the world’s brightest minds helps to grow the knowledge economy in the United States, and 40% of American Nobel Prizes won in chemistry, medicine, and physics since 2000 have been awarded to immigrants. Furthermore, students who return home often do so with a network of connections and an appreciation for American culture, thus promoting U.S. international leadership.

Finally, these individuals can also go on to become successful entrepreneurs and business leaders in the U.S. economy. The list is long, but here are two noteworthy examples:

  • Elon Musk, known for founding Paypal, Tesla, and SpaceX, was born in South Africa. He received two Bachelor’s degrees from the University of Pennsylvania before founding his first business.
  • Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, was an international student from India. He received an M.S. from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the University of Chicago before helping Microsoft develop its cloud computing capabilities.

Cause for Concern

In recent years, however, the number of new international students enrolling at U.S. institutions has been on the decline:

School YearNew International Student Enrollments in the U.S.Percent Change 
2013/14270,128--
2014/15293,7668.8%
2015/16300,7432.4%
2016/17290,836-3.3%
2017/18271,738-6.6%
2018/19269,383-0.9%

Source: Institute of International Education

With so many opportunities and success stories, why have international enrollments slowed? A survey of 509 higher education institutions in the U.S. revealed the top reasons for declining international enrollments:

Cited Reason for Decline in Enrollment% of Institutions
(Fall 2016)
% of Institutions
(Fall 2017)
% of Institutions
(Fall 2018)
Visa Application Process (delays/denials)34%68%83%
Social and Political Environment15%57%60%
Enroll in Another Country’s Institutions19%54%59%
Cost of Tuition51%55%57%
Feeling Unwelcome-49%50%
Securing a Job41%44%
Physical Safety12%33%44%

Source: NAFSA

Critically, the two most common reasons for declining enrollment—visa applications and the social and political environment—suggest that the quality of an American education is not the issue. Rather, it would appear that students are being discouraged from coming to the United States.

When we discourage or turn away international students, we lose much more than the students themselves… We lose their inventions and innovation, their collaborative input and their contributions to our communities.

– Dr. Martha E. Pollack, President, Cornell University

At the same time, other countries are taking proactive measures to attract global talent.

Australia

Australia allows its international students to work for up to 18 months after graduation. This limit can increase to 4 years for graduates of high-demand occupations. In 2018, the country saw a 15% increase in international enrollments.

Canada

Canada, a country distinguished for its multiculturalism, is quickly becoming an attractive destination for international students. The country offers expedited visa processing for qualified individuals, as well as a 3-year work visa for graduates. In 2017, international enrollments in Canada grew by an impressive 20%.

Potential Consequences

The world’s brightest minds are an important asset for continued innovation and growth, and today, there is a mass of countries welcoming them with open arms.

While the U.S. is still the preferred destination for international students and scholars, the country’s leadership in this space is at risk. In fact, since 2001, the share of international students in America has fallen from 28% to 21%.

Will the U.S be able to maintain global competitiveness if the number of new international students enrolling continues to fall? Can the country work to cultivate a more welcoming and barrier-free route to higher education?

These are potent questions that will need to be answered, especially with a sizable economic impact on the line.

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Misc

12 Ways to Get Smarter in One Infographic

Highlighting and breaking down the 12 most useful and universal mental models that will make you smarter and more productive.

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12 Ways to Get Smarter in One Infographic

View the high resolution version of today’s graphic by clicking here.

The level of a person’s raw intelligence, as measured by aptitude tests such as IQ scores, is generally stable for most people during the course of their adulthood.

While it’s true that there are things you can do to fine tune your natural capabilities, such as doing brain exercises, solving puzzles, and getting optimal sleep—the amount of raw brainpower you have is difficult to increase in any meaningful or permanent way.

For those of us who constantly strive to be high-performers in our fields, this seems like bad news. If we can’t increase our processing power, then how can we solve life’s bigger problems as we move up the ladder?

The Key: Mental Models

The good news is that while raw cognitive abilities matter, it’s how you use and harness those abilities that really makes the difference.

The world’s most successful people, from Ray Dalio to Warren Buffett, are not necessarily leagues above the rest of us in raw intelligence—instead, they simply develop and learn to apply better mental models of how the world works, and they use these principles to filter their thoughts, decisions, strategies, and execution.

This infographic comes from best-selling author and entrepreneur Michael Simmons, who has collected over 650 mental models through his work. The infographic, in a similar style to one we previously published on cognitive biases, synthesizes these models down to the most useful and universal mental models that people should learn to master first.

Concepts such as the 80/20 rule (Pareto’s principle), compound interest, and network building are summarized in the visualization, and their major components are broken down further within the circle.

Mental Model Examples

Example #1: Pareto’s Principle (80/20 Rule for Prioritization)

In a recent Medium post by Simmons, he highlights a well-known mental model that is the perfect bread crumb to start with.

The 80/20 rule (Pareto’s principle) is named after Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who was likely the first person to note the 80/20 connection in an 1896 paper.

In short, it shows that 20% of inputs (work, time, effort) often leads to 80% of outputs (performance, sales, revenue, etc.), creating an extremely vivid mental framework for making prioritization decisions.

80-20 law Pareto's principle

The 80/20 rule represents a power law distribution that has been empirically shown to exist throughout nature, and it also has huge implications on business.

If you focus your effort on these 20% of tasks first, and get the most out of them, you will be able to drive results much more efficiently than wasting time on the 80% “long-tail” shown below.

Power law distribution

Example #2: Metcalfe’s Law (Network Building)

Metcalfe’s Law is one of network effects, stating that a network’s value is proportional to the square of the number of nodes in the network.

From a mental model perspective, this is a useful way to understand how certain types of technology-driven businesses derive value.

If you have a smart grid that is only connected to one power source, that’s alright—but one connected to many different energy sources and potential consumers is much more useful for everyone on the grid. Each additional node provides value for the rest of the connections.

Metcalfe's Law illustrated

This mental model can be applied outside of strict technology or business terms as well.

For example, if you build a personal network of connections, each additional relationship can provide more value to the other people in your network. It’s the same principle that Harvard or other prestigious universities operate on: the more value a student can get from the alumni network, the higher price they can charge for tuition.

It’s hard to compete with a fully formed network at scale, as they create massive economic moats for the owner. Modern social networks and messaging apps like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, WhatsApp, and Snapchat all operate with this in mind.

The Power of Mental Models

These are just two examples of how powerful mental models can be effective in making you think clearer and work smarter.

If you want to be a top performer, it’s worth looking into other mental models out there as well. They can help you better frame reality, so that you can harness your intelligence and effort in the most effective way possible—and it’ll allow you to deliver results along the way.

This post was first published in 2018. We have since updated it, adding in new content for 2021.

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Misc

Visualized: The Biggest Ponzi Schemes in Modern History

Learn the stories behind some of the world’s biggest Ponzi schemes in this illustrative infographic timeline.

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The Biggest Ponzi Schemes in Modern History

Some things simply sound too good to be true, but when money is involved, our judgement can become clouded.

This is often the case with Ponzi schemes, a type of financial fraud that lures investors by promising abnormally high returns. Money brought in by new members is used to pay the scheme’s founders, as well as its earlier investors.

The scheme is named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian who became infamous in the 1920s for claiming he could double his clients’ money within 90 days. Since then, numerous Ponzi schemes have been orchestrated around the globe.

To help you learn more about these sophisticated crimes, this infographic examines some of the biggest Ponzi schemes in modern history.

Ponzi Schemes in the 20th Century

The 1990s saw a number of large Ponzi schemes worth upwards of $500 million.

CountryDate EndedName of Scheme and FounderValue (USD)
Belgium1991Moneytron, Jean-Pierre Van Rossem$860M
Romania1994Caritas, Ioan Stoica$1B - $5B
Russia1994MMM, Sergei Mavrodi$10B
U.S.1997Great Ministries International, Geral Payne$500M

In many cases, these schemes thrived by taking advantage of the unsuspecting public who often lacked any knowledge of investing. Caritas, for example, was a Ponzi scheme based in Romania that marketed itself as a “self-help game” for the poor.

The scheme was initially very successful, tricking millions of people into making deposits by offering the chance to earn an 800% return after three months. This was not sustainable, and Caritas was eventually unable to distribute further winnings.

Caritas operated for only two years, but its “success” was undeniable. In 1993, it was estimated that a third of the country’s money was circulating through the scheme.

Ponzi Schemes in the 21st Century

The American public has fallen victim to numerous multi-billion dollar Ponzi schemes since the beginning of the 21st century.

CountryDate EndedName of Scheme and FounderValue (USD)
U.S.2003Mutual Benefits Company, Joel Steinger$1B
U.S.2003Petters Group Worldwide, Tom Petters$4B
U.S.2008Madoff Investment Scandal, Bernie Madoff$65B
U.S.2012Stanford Financial Group, Allen Stanford$7B

Many of these schemes have made major headlines, but much less is said about the thousands of everyday Americans that were left in financial ruin.

For victims of the Madoff Investment Scandal, receiving any form of compensation has been a drawn-out process. In 2018, 10 years after the scheme was uncovered, a court-appointed trustee managed to recover $13 billion by liquidating Madoff’s firm and personal assets.

As NPR reported, investors may recover up to 60 to 70 percent of their initial investment only. For victims who had to delay retirement or drastically alter their lifestyles, this compensation likely provides little solace.

Do the Crime, Pay the Time

Running a Ponzi scheme is likely to land you in jail for a long time, at least in the U.S.

In 2009, for example, 71-year-old Bernie Madoff pled guilty to 11 federal felonies and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. That’s 135 years longer than the average U.S. murder conviction.

Outside of the U.S., it’s a much different story. Weaker regulation and enforcement, particularly in developing countries, means a number of schemes are ongoing today.

Sergei Mavrodi, known for running the Russian Ponzi scheme MMM, started a new organization named MMM Global after being released from prison in 2011. Although he died in March 2018, his self-described “social financial network” has established a base in several Southeast Asian and African countries.

If you or someone you know is worried about falling victim to a Ponzi scheme, this checklist from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) may be a useful resource.

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