The recent U.S. Census informed us that population growth was essentially flat in the last decade, and more detailed analysis in the last year suggests that the birth rate has been declining, the death rates have been rising, and immigration has declined.
GDP growth derives largely from population growth and thus projections for GDP growth are minimal in terms of long-term trends, while better in terms of recovery from the negative effects of COVID-19.
As the dean of the School of Business at UConn, I am particularly concerned about the effects of these trends on our School, our University, and our state. All of the national trends affect us, but they are exacerbated by the emigration reality. Within the USA people move, and the long-term pattern has been emigration from the Rust Belt and the Northeast to the South and West.
Amidst these various pressures, the School of Business and UConn have nonetheless grown. Students see opportunity in what we offer, as the Top 25, Research 1, flagship, land-grant University in our state. In-state, out-of-state, and international students have all supported us, but the challenges increase. Connecticut companies depend upon us to attract and educate the talent that they need to thrive and grow, and the communities within our state welcome our graduates as sustaining, long-term citizens.
The Immigration Challenge
Immigration is driven by at least three factors: governmental rules, governmental policy, and perception. Today the rules in the U.S. relate to who can get a visa to come here, for what purpose, and whether they can stay. For UConn the key questions are: can someone come to study and can they stay and work? These rules for student visas, H1B visas, and others, change over time. The policy questions are: How does one comply? Where do you get a visa and how?
The last year has been negative for potential students. Embassies that theoretically grant visas were largely closed worldwide. This COVID-19-driven reality curtailed one of our nation’s greatest exports, education. Embassies began to reopen a few months ago, but too late to support levels of student interest at pre-COVID-19 levels.
Beyond the student challenge is the employment challenge. Global students can typically stay for a period of time for experiential training. But our overall restrictions on immigration have reduced opportunities for students to remain after graduation, and the numbers who can earn Green Cards, and citizen- and permanent- status have shrunk. Worse yet, we have made it very hard for international corporations to bring existing, senior employees to our country for limited assignments. Many global companies have relocated activity to Canada or Europe so that they can bring their global staff together as a team.
Perception is the final issue. For decades the United States has been the destination of choice and opportunity. Recent events have made global citizens and their families less excited about the opportunity to study here. The ‘welcome mat’ is less welcoming. There is perceived negativism in our community toward others. Originally the Muslim bans were the poster child for this trend, and more recent issues around hate crimes against Asian citizens have exacerbated perceived negativism. Our visa restrictions have worsened the perception.
In the School of Business, we believe that business is a source of economic prosperity for the world and that a globally diverse student body prepares all of us for a thriving economy. We know that a diverse student body and workforce is a force for good. We strongly encourage and stand ready to do anything we can to enhance access to the USA for education and employment.
The Emigration Challenge
While we must address the barriers to students wishing to come here, we must also give those who are here good reason to stay. People remain in Connecticut for many reasons: good education, exciting communities, strong employment, exceptional healthcare, and more. We work closely with communities and employers to enhance the quality of life in Connecticut. Our current efforts around Innovation Places, community development, and the Connecticut Small Business Development Center are all examples of that commitment. We welcome additional ideas, and are committed to doing our part for the future of Connecticut.
The Demographic Challenge
There is not a great deal that UConn can do to change the demographic path. The future high-school graduates are already born, so the opportunity is to retain more Connecticut residents in the state or to attract more domestic or international families here. Our hard work developing innovative student programs and a first-rate learning environment established UConn as a beacon of educational opportunity. But we need state and federal policy to move in favor of retention and inbound migration.
What can we do?
UConn has joined other universities in crying out for support for student visas and student access to employment opportunity post-graduation. But our legislators respond to the volume and passion behind issues and each of us, and each of our companies and organizations, has a voice in this important debate. Let us use those voices.
Many companies have declined to interview and consider international graduates for U.S. jobs, even though they need their talent and training. The barriers they face are the uncertainty of long-term retention in the USA, or it is too difficult to comply with regulations, or it is too expensive. Yet those same companies lament the fact that they cannot find the specific talent they need to meet their needs. They divert jobs and activities to their international subsidiaries and locations, because it is too difficult in the USA.
The market for talent is global, and if companies cannot meet their needs in the United States (and Connecticut), they will move their needs around the world, following the talent and the ease of doing business.
The Fourth Estate, our legislators, our companies, and we as individuals must all confront these realities and begin to change the narrative. GDP growth depends on population growth, talent, innovation, and the attractiveness of our communities as homes to our workforce and our companies. Given our demographics, access to motivated, talented, global citizens is imperative. This is not a political call for open borders, but rather a strategic call for a longer-term vision about the future prosperity of our state and the nation.
I try to share some thoughts on a regular basis, but I want to be sure to invite your responses. My mother always said you learn more by listening than talking. I stand ready to listen to your thoughts and welcome them. You may have views on immigration, emigration, and demography. You may have suggestions that you would like to see discussed in future Dean’s Messages. Your ideas are eagerly awaited. Feel free to email me at John.Elliott@uconn.edu and kindly copy my executive assistant, Tina Pierce, at Tina.Pierce@uconn.edu.