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Study: Foreign students often leave Western Pa. after getting degrees

Debra Erdley
| Friday, Aug. 29, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

Pittsburgh may be missing a potential economic boost because most international students leave the region when they get their degrees, a new study suggests.

The study, released on Friday, ranked the Pittsburgh area as the 15th most-popular region in the nation for foreign students to study.

Neil Ruiz penned the report for the Brookings Institution that tracked the geographic impact of international students. It reported that 13,326 foreign students poured more than $626 million in tuition and living costs into the region between 2008 and 2012.

Global Pittsburgh spokesman Tom Buell, whose group works with a consortium of 15 colleges, universities and English language programs to attract international students, said the most recent statistics available show numbers of foreign students rose 16 percent in the Pittsburgh region during the 2012-13 school year — more than twice the national rate.

But Ruiz found only 44.5 percent of them stay after graduation.

“That's not very good,” Ruiz said.

A training provision of their student visas allows graduates to work full time in the United States for 12 to 29 months after they get their degrees. Then they must obtain a special visa, become a legal permanent resident or return home. Ruiz said that in the Pittsburgh region, about 72 percent of foreign students are enrolled in master's or doctoral programs.

“Most of them are very highly sought-after students,” Ruiz said. “Most of them are coming from some of the fastest-growing cities in the world. First, they open up markets in their home cities, which facilitate trade, foreign direct investment and knowledge transfer. In addition, they infuse revenue into local communities, and they help fill demand for jobs requiring specific skills in local labor markets.”

Simply put, Ruiz said “They help build bridges.”

At 23, Beijing native Siyu Zhang, who is studying for a master's degree in industrial engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, would like to help build those kinds of bridges in Pittsburgh.

Siyu, who speaks fluent, rapid-fire English, will graduate in December. He's circulating resumes here and attends the First Thursday events Global Pittsburgh hosts to network with local entrepreneurs.

“I've already attended two career fairs at Pitt. At the end, they always ask ‘Do you have a green card or are you a U.S. citizen?' And then they say they'll be in touch. It's a hard process, but I'll keep trying,” he said, smiling.

It was no surprise to officials at Global Pittsburgh, which encourages international outreach, that the number of international students has grown here.

“The wide range of institutions, coupled with the high quality of life and low cost of living have made this a very attractive destination for students from all over the world,” Buell said.

Universities looking to boost their finances and international profile welcome foreign students because they typically pay the highest tuition rates at local schools but receive little or no financial aid.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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