More foreign students are spending more money in the United States as they obtain college degrees and expertise prized by businesses in this country.

Brookings Institution researchers contend many of those students should be encouraged to remain in this country and work for companies beginning or expanding global business ventures.

Foreign students spent $34.6 billion in the 118 largest metropolitan areas of the U.S. from 2008 to 2012, according to those researchers, who were funded jointly by the nonprofit Brookings and JPMorgan Chase.

That was 73 percent of all the money spent over those years in the U.S. by more than 1.15 million foreign students, Brookings reported recently. Each of the 118 metro areas studied had at least 1,500 foreign students.

In the Baton Rouge area over that period, 2,514 foreign students spent more than $48.9 million on tuition and living expenses, the report showed.

In the New Orleans area in those same years, 3,114 foreign students spent more than $117.9 million.

The bulk of foreign students in the U.S. obtain their educations with the aid of F-1 visas, according to Brookings. The nonprofit said F-1 numbers have climbed powerfully since 2001, when they totaled 110,000. By the end of 2012, that total had increased to 524,000.

By the end of the spring semester in 2013, the U.S. was host to 819,644 international students, Brookings reported. The nonprofit’s analysis said that number was “21 percent of all students studying abroad worldwide.”

Especially important are the possible international business opportunities foreign graduates could provide companies near their adopted universities, according to Brookings.

“Metropolitan economies can potentially benefit if the federal government reforms the immigration system to increase retention of America’s foreign students,” Brookings analyst Neil G. Ruiz wrote.

“Metropolitan leaders wanting to retain U.S.-trained foreigners should help educate local employers on how to obtain the necessary visa through the current U.S. immigration system,” Ruiz added.

“State and metropolitan leaders should engage with their local higher educational institutions to utilize foreign students’ knowledge and connections with markets abroad to benefit local businesses.”

In an interview, Ruiz described such students as “invaluable bridges to the global economy. They’re basically economic ambassadors bridging two economies at the same time.”

That’s important, Ruiz said, because “most foreign students are coming from fast-growing places.” He said such places have many business opportunities for U.S. companies.

Combined, the countries of China, India and Iran sent 1,150 students to the Baton Rouge area over the 2008-2012 study period, Brookings reported.

China, India and South Korea sent a combined 1,329 students to the New Orleans area over the same period.

Ruiz noted in the Brookings report that F-1 visa holders can work in Baton Rouge, New Orleans or other areas of the nation full time for 29 months if they graduate with degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics, so-called STEM degrees.

Non-STEM F-1 graduates can remain in the U.S. for only one year.

More workers with STEM skills are needed now, according to Brookings. The nonprofit noted, for the U.S., “studies have shown that job openings in the STEM fields are difficult to fill.”

Brookings’ analysts said “37 percent of all incoming foreign students were studying toward a (bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate) in the science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields.”

At 63.7 percent, STEM students were the dominant foreign presence at colleges and universities in the Baton Rouge area from 2008 to 2012, Brookings reported. That was the 11th-highest STEM percentage among the 118 metro areas studied.

Ruiz said the largest portion of those students studied engineering at LSU. Other large groups of foreign students at area colleges and universities were drawn to computer and information sciences, physical sciences and agricultural sciences.

“If businesses in Baton Rouge and Louisiana in general want to make sure they have STEM talent, there is much there in Baton Rouge,” Ruiz said.

In the New Orleans area, only 31.9 percent of foreign students pursued STEM degrees over the same period.

Ruiz said the largest numbers of foreign students in New Orleans were drawn to Tulane University and the University of New Orleans for business and management degrees. He said those students’ degrees and connections to growing countries and cities around the world could prove extremely valuable to Louisiana businesses.

“They are valuable in that respect, though, only if they are able to stay here,” Ruiz emphasized.

There is disagreement, however, about the need for foreign graduates — especially STEM graduates — to remain in this country.

Norman S. Matloff, an economist, mathematician and researcher at the University of California at Davis, is one of the critics mentioned by Brookings. Matloff contends foreign STEM workers lower wages for U.S. citizens in STEM fields.

“There is no STEM labor shortage,” Matloff said. “This has been shown repeatedly, in studies by EPI (Economic Policy Institute), the RAND Corp. and so on.”

Matloff added, “Brookings has been aggressively promoting pro-skilled-immigration policies, in line with the tech industry’s desire to hire cheap, immobile foreign labor.”

For example, Matloff said, foreign workers with H-1B temporary work visas can obtain a permanent resident green card through sponsorship by their employers over a period of several years.

Tech companies, whether large or small, often ensure immobility of foreign STEM workers through such sponsorships, Matloff said.

“A foreign worker in this situation, of course, has the legal right to switch employers but dare not do so, as it would mean starting the lengthy green card process all over again,” Matloff said.

“The (foreign) worker is willing to take a lower wage,” Matloff explained.

“It’s just like the situation with an American with small kids,” Matloff added. “If an employer has on-site day care, the worker will probably be willing to work for a lower wage due to this form of nonmonetary compensation.”

At the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, Communications Director Lauren Hatcher said, “Although we recognize the shortage of STEM-skilled workers generally, it is a particular concern for the software industry. That said, BRAC’s investor base has yet to elevate it as a major issue.”

The nonprofit Economic Policy Institute published research on STEM-skill jobs in the U.S. in April 2013. That report was written by Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn and B. Lindsay Lowell.

Lowell is director of policy studies for the study of international migration at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Salzman is professor of public policy at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Kuehn is an economics instructor and doctoral candidate at American University, Washington, D.C.

Their EPI report said, “For every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.”

The EPI researchers also reported, “We find that there is no lack of domestic graduates or existing domestic STEM workers to fill available STEM jobs.”

Lowell, Salzman and Kuehn concluded, “The STEM shortage in the United States is largely overblown.”

Like Brookings, EPI is based in Washington, D.C.

At Brookings, Ruiz conceded EPI’s analysts and other critics, like Matloff, “have their views and research showing there are a lot of STEM graduates in the United States.”

Ruiz added, though, many of those graduates “are going into business or to Wall Street … often for jobs that require lots of mathematics.”

In addition, Ruiz said, a Brookings study he co-authored in May 2013 showed H-1B visa workers in computer occupations in 2010 earned wages that averaged between 1 percent and 61 percent more than workers born in the U.S. That average gap narrowed as both sets of workers aged.

“By far, foreign workers were getting paid more,” Ruiz said. He suggested that was “because they have the highly specialized skills employers really need.”