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Invasion of Engineering Schools by Foreign Students Raises Concerns

February 08, 1988|DAVID SMOLLAR | Times Staff Writer

Last year, UC San Diego enrolled 128 new graduate students in its advanced degree engineering programs. Of the total, the university was able to provide only 10 students with financial support for their first year, averaging about $15,000 per student to cover fees and living expenses.

Little wonder, then, that many would-be graduate engineering students--almost all of them United States citizens--go into private industry immediately after receiving their undergraduate bachelor of science degrees, enticed by company salaries starting in the mid-$20,000s.

The gap left in university research programs at UCSD and elsewhere is filled by foreign-born students, who are lured to institutions such as UCSD by the quality of instruction and the chance, perhaps, to gain a career toehold in the world's most fertile nation for professional employment.

Foreign students can qualify only with great difficulty to work in industry with a bachelor's degree earned abroad, but often can obtain financial aid from their own government or other agencies to enter graduate schools here.

More foreign-born students receive engineering doctorates each year from U.S. institutions than do American citizens, with those from Taiwan, India and Korea alone accounting for a fifth of all doctoral degrees, which totaled 3,400 in 1986.

Now there are moves under way at UCSD and elsewhere by both academic and industry officials to try and improve the balance between foreign and native-born engineering talent, in particular by offering more money to students so that they will enter doctorate programs.

Future Shortages Feared

Recent national studies show that increasingly, there could develop by 2000 shortages in the number of engineering Ph.D.s needed to replenish professorships and to fill advanced research positions in industry, especially in defense-related work.

The theme of a national engineering conference being held in San Diego this week, "Engineering Education and Economic Development: A Critical Linkage" reflects the growing concern in the U.S. over what a shortage of engineers could mean for the nation's productivity.

In large measure, the concern over the number of foreign-born students in the nation's advanced programs reflects political and social uneasiness over whether such persons will remain in the U.S. after graduation, whether they can fill teaching roles at universities, and whether American taxpayers are unfairly asked to pay the burden of educating those coming from abroad.

Most officials who have studied the trend call it a positive "brain drain" for the U.S. They note that more than 60% of all foreign students remain in the country after graduation and become citizens.

Nevertheless, these officials agree that the national interest would be served by a larger number of American-born students with doctorates while not limiting foreign participation.

At UCSD, a committee of university and industry officials has begun fund raising for a fellowship program to support first-year students who are American citizens. The university and its professors receive a substantial amount of government grants for specific projects that involve graduate students, but almost none of those funds can be used for first-year students.

"There has been a lot of concern expressed (locally) by private companies that we should give money specifically for U.S. citizens," said Marilyn Wilson, director of corporate relations for the UCSD Division of Engineering. "It's expensive to go to graduate school and we're got to do something for these students, many of whom are married, to forgo nice big starting salaries in industry."

Far From Luxurious

Even the initial awards of $15,000 ($10,000 plus waiving of academic fees) is far from luxurious, Wilson said. And she said it will be difficult to garner the funds necessary to reach the goal of supporting between 50 and 60 students a year. The long-range goal of the UC system is to reduce the number of foreign-born graduate students to no more than 25% of total department enrollment at each campus.

The powerful attraction of private industry in Southern California is seen in the fact that neither UCSD nor San Diego State University has problems attracting sufficient numbers of undergraduates to engineering disciplines. At UCSD, almost one-fourth of the school's undergraduates major in engineering. At San Diego State, the number of students is restricted because demand would otherwise overwhelm the classroom and lab facilities.

"We assume that all of our students who graduate (as undergraduates) can go either way in their careers: Private industry or into academia," George T. Craig, dean of San Diego State's College of Engineering, said. "We try to involve them (as undergraduates) in research with professors here so that they can learn what goes on in university research.

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