This is What College Would Look Like If It Were Founded By Elon Musk


Let’s imagine a classroom. There are maybe 40 students from all different backgrounds studying mathematics. There’s a professor using the latest technology to flash fractions and equations across a giant screen. I forgot to mention that they’re floating in space, because they’re on Mars.

This is what college would look like if it were founded by Elon Musk … a few decades after he’s discovered how we can colonize Mars.

Despite the fact that the American education system is not perfect (it’s expensive; in certain subjects, it does not produce results as competitive as we'd like; it’s exclusionary for certain economic groups; etc.), there are still swarms of young people who want to study here — 684,807 in fact. An estimated 684,807 international students attended tertiary-level education programs in the U.S. in 2010, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics. This accounts for 21% of all students studying abroad. 

Students want to come here, but why? To live the American dream? As the Huffington Post reported this week, “America ranks 17th in the developed world in education, well behind places like Finland, South Korea, and Japan, as well as Poland, Germany, and Australia.” We are 27th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading comprehension compared to students in 27 industrialized countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. So again, why do students want to come here? One statistic not talked about is creativity. The Martin Prosperity Institute released a study in 2011 ranking 82 countries based on creativity as correlated between economic progress, human development, happiness, and other factors. Countries were ranked based on three key questions: How technologically savvy are they? How capable is their workforce? And how open are they to new ideas? The U.S. made it to the number-two spot on the list. 

It seems that our lack of focus on standardized testing, as compared to other countries such as South Korea, has paid off in terms of creating an innovative and experimental culture of creative students. Having the freedom to study a wide variety of subjects in a number of innovative ways may be what keeps the international students coming back.

But what we are not considering is what those students can bring to our table. According to a report released this summer by the National Foundation for American Policy, “International students play a critical role in sustaining quality science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduate programs at U.S. universities.” 

Let’s take for example, Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. Musk grew up in South Africa and came to the U.S. to get a bachelor of science in physics from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor of arts in business from the Wharton School. Or there’s Sergey Brin, the Russian co-founder of Google who received a bachelor of science degree with honors in mathematics and computer science from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree from Stanford University. Or we can’t forget French-born Iranian American Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of eBay who graduated from Tufts University with a degree in computer science.

“International students represent a key source of talent for U.S. employers,” said Stuart Anderson, NFAP’s executive director and author of the report. He suggests we deeply consider pending legislation regarding foreign graduate students in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). These bills, including S. 744 and H.R. 2131, address the issue of delayed sponsorship, thereby speeding up the residency process to get those talented individuals in our economy quickly.

“Immigrants today are more than twice as likely to found businesses as their native-born counterparts and are responsible for more than 25% of all new business creation and related job growth,” as Grace Nasri wrote in Fast Company this week. While these people are attending school, they bring in an estimated $22.7 billion for the U.S. economy in tuition, fees, and living expenses. Then, after they graduate, they go on to found Fortune 500 companies, media empires, and new technological industries for the next generation of movers and shakers.

So while we are having the job creation discussion in one political corner of the room and the immigration debate in the other, we need to start talking together. We may realize we can help each other reach a mutual goal: a better, smarter, and more competitive American mutt.