State University

In response to a comment on a Dutch Courage thread, Burt says:

There are lots of good reasons to accept foreign students. Not the least of which is to cause “brain drain” from other nations.

They send their best and brightest here to be educated. They pay a premium for it, subsidizing in part education to be provided to U.S. citizens and in particular to Californians (in this case). Along they way, they find out that life in the U.S.A. and economic opportunities here after graduation far exceed what is waiting for them back home.

Some go home, after they graduate, and typically maintain contacts with the U.S. citizens they befriended here, doing business with them, and thereby trading with us. That trade contributes to our economy.

But the real goal is for them to decide to stay, or at least to come back. It’s just plain better here. I have friends — industrialists from Sri Lanka, doctors from India and Pakistan, pharmacists from South Africa, lawyers from the UK — all of whom have taken their advanced training and come here to the States, and now they work here. Their labor, their brainpower, their contributions to the economy are to the benefit of the U.S. and are not to the benefit of those nations with whom we compete.

I wish we had more foreign students in our public universities.

I am quite sympathetic to this line of reasoning… except as it applies to California in particular. Theoretically, a state university system exists in good part to educate the residents of that state. That’s why state tax dollars go to this institution and why in-state students typically have lower tuition than out-of-state. This is true for California as it is for the other 49 states. Unlike most other states, however, California’s universities are filled to the brim. This is especially true of the University of California schools, which are selective by their nature. They are reserved for the top 1/8th of students. However, even if you look at the Cal States, a lot of them are comparatively selective as well. Fresno State accepts a little more than half of its applicants. The same for San Jose State and Sacramento State.

To take me as an example, a good but not great student, I would have been able to get into SJSU or Sac State, but even other CSU schools like Cal Poly or San Diego State would have been tough. Now, maybe I’m not “good college” material, but… nowhere comes close to California in this regard. If I were a Californian being told that there just isn’t room for me at one of the state’s premier schools despite the grades to get me into a Michigan State or Texas A&M, I would be resentful as heck that slots are being given to people from lands far away. At the very least, the money they make from doing so should be geared towards letting more Californians in so that they’re not shuffling off to Nevada-Reno or Arizona State. It very much becomes a case of “a spot for them is one less spot for me.”

Now, for states that are not California, I personally think that Burt’s comments are spot-on. Particularly for states that have trouble filling in their universities. Montana and Idaho don’t have a single university with over 20k (Boise State is closest, but is a thoroughly mediocre school), the Dakota schools have trouble with 10k. Of course, if we brought the foreign students in to those states, they might high-tail it back home as soon as they can. So okay, states like Oregon and the under-utilized public universities in the northeast. You get the idea.

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.


  1. Even as I was signing on to Burt’s comment in the earlier thread, I was having an “on the other hand” thought along these same lines.

    • Sure, but you want it to be more!

      Interestingly, looking over their figures, there seems to be a linear relationship between how prestigious a school is and how many out-of-staters it serves. Which makes sense, because UCLA and Berkeley attract the most attention. Whether this is a problem or not depends on priorities. The University of Texas at Austin is over 90% Texan, and the University of Florida over 95% Floridian.

      On the one hand, that means that those states are more directly serving their residents. On the other hand, it’s possible that both states could attract gifted and talented outsiders, which itself could serve the state in a different way.

      For California, though, I think it’s an aggravating factor to what I personally consider a bigger problem. Namely, that you have the “good universities” and the “lackluster universities” and only a handful of schools (UCR, UCM, SDSU, CPSU) in between. Compare that to Texas, for instance, where if you don’t get into UT, you can go to A&M. If you don’t go to A&M, there’s Texas Tech. Outside of that, you still have Houston and North Texas and a bunch of others before you get to “regional universities”, non-research institutions, and schools that few are aware of. Florida works much the same way. In Florida’s case, there are startlingly few schools, they still run a spectrum. In smaller population states, the top universities tend not to be as picky (Kansas and K-State both accept more than 90% of applicants), so it becomes a non-issue.

      I think in a situation like that, it matters less if you’re pulling in out-of-state students and foreign students and so on.

  2. Is there actually competition between in-state and foreign students for admissions? Granted that in the short run, full is full. But in the long run, doesn’t admitting more subsidizing students allow expansion for the admission of subsidized students?

    • Only if the expansion is actually occurring. But when a university is purposefully selective, as the UC system is, and not increasing enrollment numbers (which the comment Burt was responding to stated) I think it’s fair to look at it as actual competition.

      If the money gotten from the subsidizers is going towards Californians, though, that’s a bit different:

      At the very least, the money they make from doing so should be geared towards letting more Californians in so that they’re not shuffling off to Nevada-Reno or Arizona State.

      • I know Cali opened up a new UC in Merced a few years back, which effectively creates more space in the system, even if not at UCLA, UCSD or Cal. But is there any data on the increase in UC student-seats relative to the increase in California’s population as a whole?

  3. I’m remarkably unsympathetic to the argument that we ought to brain-drain smart students from relatively impoverished countries. Sure, when we convince smart Kenyans to come and train as doctors in the U.S. and stay, that makes the U.S. better off. It also makes Kenya worse off, and worse off by a larger margin than the U.S. gains. It seems rather uncharitable to make it our policy goal to specifically drain poor countries of the most important resource that they need to be functional.

    • Can this be changed with a little bit of focus shifting?

      Are we not stealing manual labor from Mexico? Surely Mexico would benefit from qualified framers and people who can lay down sheet rock by an order of magnitude more than the US would.

      Or does that not follow?

      • I’m specificially mentioning Kenyan doctors because there’s actually some reasonable data on the question of how much brain-drain of health professionals costs Kenya. See

        According to that study, each emigrating doctor costs ~$500,000 in explicit investment for medical education and emigrating nurses cost ~$320,000. The U.S. spends about $700 million on direct foreign aid to Kenya. Maybe it would be net cheaper and more effective to just stop poaching their doctors and cut direct aid.

    • Those doctors, to a large degree, are much more likely to focus on neglected diseases, which can be researched much more efficiently at Hopkins (or UPMC) than in Burundi.

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