Greater Boston is among the top destinations in the country for foreign students, whose spending on tuition and living expenses pumps hundreds of millions into the local economy annually, according to a report released Friday.
The Boston metropolitan area ranks third in the number of foreign students studying at local colleges, behind New York and Los Angeles, and second only to New York in the amount they spend on tuition, according to the report, by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank and the Wall Street bank JP Morgan Chase & Co.
Between 2008 and 2012, foreign students in the Boston area spent $1.8 billion on college tuition, according to the report. They also spent $933 million on living costs, such as rent.
The study, which examined student visa data, underscores the importance of higher education as one of Boston’s leading export industries, attracting new money and investment that helps the regional economy to grow. Greater Boston’s colleges and universities employed an average of about 90,000 people in 2013, according to the Labor Department.
“The health and welfare of these institutions is incredibly dependent on their ability to attract students to support their mission,” said Michael Goodman, director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. “Demographically in the US, the native population, the number of people coming of traditional college age is flat, so the growth areas in terms of all but the most elite colleges are in nontraditional students.”
The report also calls for overhauling immigration rules that would make it easier for foreign students to become permanent US residents after earning degrees. Critics of such changes contend it would limit job opportunities for US-born workers and depress wages while also contributing to a “brain drain” in developing nations.
But the report argues that easing immigration restrictions would further build a skilled and educated workforce needed to compete in a global economy, helping fuel economic growth and fostering international ties.
“Metropolitan economies can potentially benefit if the federal government reforms the immigration system to increase retention of America’s foreign students,” the report said.
The report called the United States a “preeminent global hub for academic training,” and Eastern Massachusetts is a key contributor, home to 85 colleges and more than 50,000 foreign students. About 40 percent of foreign students come here for bachelor’s degrees, 48 percent for a master’s, and 12 percent for Ph.D’s.
That is about three times the national average, according to the report. Greater Boston had 65 student visa approvals per 1,000 students, compared to the national average of 22 visas per 1,000 students.
The colleges and universities in Eastern Massachusetts that accepted the most foreign students between 2008 and 2012 were: Northeastern University (9,279), Boston University (8,413), and Harvard University (7,112).
Boston also ranked third nationally in the number of foreign students studying science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Twenty-seven percent of visa approvals went to students enrolled in those programs.
More than half of the foreign students in Greater Boston decided to extend their students visas for up to 2½ years after graduation to work in the United States on temporary visas.