Higher education

Definition: College-level, graduate school, and professional-school level education

Significance: International scholars and students have made great contributions to the United States—economically, in helping to advance science and technology, and in increasing international understanding. However, as global competition for highly educated and skilled people has increased, fewer international scholars are choosing to come to the United States. This development could handicap the United States in future global competition, especially in the fields of science and technology. At the same time, making access to U.S. universities easier for foreign students threatens to create problems for domestic students and create security problems.

Since the 1940’s, the United States has led the world in attracting international scholars and students to its institutions of higher learning. Definitions vary, but international students are persons who are not American citizens or permanent residents, who have temporary visas, and who are enrolled full-time at American universities, either to pursue a degree or to attend at least one semester as exchange students. International scholars are persons who are not American citizens or permanent residents, who have temporary visas, and who are engaged full-time in research or teaching programs at American institutions.

Numbers and Trends

Data on international students and scholars are reported in the annual “Open Doors” report of the Institute of International Education (IIE). The IIE has conducted the annual census of international students and scholars in the United States since its founding in 1919. Since 1954, it has published “Open Doors” reports, which are based on surveys sent to more than two thousand accredited U.S. institutions.

From 1954-1955 through 2007-2008, the number of international students in the United States increased more than 1,800 percent—from 34,323 to 623,805. The latter number represents a 7 percent increase over the figure for 2006-2007. In 2008, international students represented about 3.5 percent of all college students in the United States. Their numbers have increased during every academic year, except those between 2002-2003 and 2005-2006, when their numbers dropped by about 4 percent. This drop was largely due to stricter visa restrictions and increased scrutiny of foreign students and scholars put in place in the United States following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In 2006-2007 and in 2007-2008, enrollments rebounded. Since 2001-2002, Asian countries have sent more students to the United States than any other region of the world, with India sending the most. In 2007-2008, fully 61 percent of all international students came from Asia, with India, Japan, China, and South Korea accounting for approximately 40 percent of the total.

According to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reports, the United States ranked first in the world in attracting international students in 2008, when it hosted 20 percent of international students. The top ten U.S. states, which accounted for slightly more than 60 percent of all international students in the United States in 2007-2008, are, in descending order, California, New York, Texas, Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana.

In 2007-2008, 48.8 percent of international students in the United States were at the graduate level. According to the IIE, these international students represent 12 percent of all graduate students in the United States. In the fields of science and engineering, the international student percentage goes up to 30 percent, and for doctorates awarded in science and engineering it increases to 43 percent.

About 50 percent of recent international graduate students in the United States come from the nations of India, China, and South Korea. The dropoff in applications and admissions of international students to graduate school in the United States following the September 11, 2001, attacks was greater than that for all international students. However, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) found that a rebound in enrollments began in 2005-2006, with an increase of 1 percent, followed by a 7 percent increase in 2006-2007, and a 3 percent increase in 2007-2008. Enrollments still lagged slightly behind the figures frombefore the decline.

Doctoral Students

International students who earn doctoral degrees have a special importance; they often remain in the United States after they complete their formal studies and make crucial contributions to research and science. The Survey of Earned Doctorates by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) estimates that in 2007, 16,947 international students received doctorates in the United States, representing 38.1 percent of all doctorates awarded in the country. The increase in foreign doctorates has been steady and substantial, as in 1977 foreign students received only 4,854 doctorates, representing 15.5 percent of all doctorates.

The proportion of international students earning American doctoral degrees ranged from a low of 13 percent in education to a high of 68 percent in engineering. International students also received 53 percent of all American doctorates awarded in the physical sciences. Students from Asia have earned about 68 percent of doctorates awarded to international students in the United States since the 1990’s, with China leading all other nations.

International Scholars

The “Open Doors” report on international scholars reported that 106,123 foreign scholars were teaching and doing research in the United States in 2007-2008, an increase of 8 percent over 2006-2007 and of 70.2 percent over 1996-1997. Of these scholars, 65.6 percent were men, a decrease of 8.6 percent since 1996-1997. The vast majority, 71.0 percent, were primarily involved in research. Another 12.0 percent were in teaching, 9.7 percent in research and teaching equally, and 6.9 percent in other work.

The biological and biomedical sciences had more international scholars than any other fields. Health sciences (17.7 percent), engineering (12.8 percent), and physical sciences (12.1 percent) ranked second, third, and fourth; U.S. social sciences and history were a distant fifth at 4.1 percent. In 2007-2008, the 23,799 scholars from China constituted 22.4 percent of all international scholars in the United States, more than any other nation. India was a distant second at 9.4 percent. Overall that year, 41.1 percent of international scholars were from China, India, and South Korea. Harvard was by wide margin the number one destination with 3,712 international scholars, Stanford University being second with 2,824. Seven of the top ten destination universities were in California.

President John F. Kennedy at the White House with students from Nigeria
President John F. Kennedy at the White House with students from Nigeria, Pakistan, Iran, Colombia, Morocco, and other countries who came to the United States to study at American colleges and universities in 1961. (AP/Wide World Photos)

Stay Rates

International scholars, students, and graduates who have remained in the United States have contributed greatly to research labs, universities, and other high-tech institutions. However, there is virtually no information on stay rates for international undergraduate degree recipients or for scholars who arrive here with doctorates. The annual Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education report, “Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients,” covers doctorates in science (including economics and social sciences) and engineering. The most recent report was issued in 2007, including data through 2005.

Stay rates are looked at in terms of one, two, five, and ten years. The 2007 report found the two-year stay rate was 40 percent in 1989; it increased to 71 percent in 1992, declined after the 2001 terrorist attacks, and rebounded to 66 percent by 2005. The five-year stay rate for those getting doctorates in 2000 was an all-time high of 68 percent, and the ten-year stay rate in 2005 was 62 percent. Five-year stay rates from 2000 to 2005 for the four countries with the most doctorate recipients were as follows: China (92 percent), India (85 percent), Taiwan (50 percent), and South Korea (42 percent). Fiveyear stay rates also varied by degree field, with computer and electrical engineering highest at 76 percent, and physical sciences, computer science, and life sciences all running close seconds at 73 percent. The lowest stay rate was economics (44 percent). This report is optimistic about the chances of current foreign doctoral students remaining in the United States, pointing out the recent rebound in stay rates, the high long-term stay rates, and a similar turnaround in recent graduates who say they wish to stay.

Most Popular Fields of Study Among International Students, 2007-2008

Field Percent
Business and management 19.6
Engineering 17.0
Physical and life sciences 9.3
Social sciences 8.7
Mathematics and computer sciences 8.2
Fine and applied arts 5.6
Health professions 5.1
Intensive English language 4.6
Education 3.1
Humanities 3.1
Other 15.7

Source: UNESCO

NORC’s Survey of Earned Doctorates asks international graduates whether they plan to stay in the United States. Past research indicates most of the recipients who state they plan to stay actually do so. The percentage of foreign doctoral recipients planning to stay had reached an all-time high of 71.7 percent in 2001, declined after the terrorist attacks, and rebounded in 2005, with the percentage saying they planned to stay at 74.7 percent in 2006. That year’s doctoral recipients from China (89.8 percent) were most likely to say they intended to stay, followed closely by Bulgaria (88.9 percent), India (88.1 percent), and Iran (88.0 percent). The lowest percentage was Chile (30.1 percent), with South American countries having generally lower percentages. The 2006 survey found that graduates in chemistry (90 percent), biological/biomedical sciences (88 percent), and electrical engineering (87 percent) were most likely to say they planned to stay, while graduates in education (43 percent), social sciences (60 percent), and humanities (62 percent) were least likely.


NAFSA: Association of International Educators conservatively estimated that foreign students and their dependents contributed approximately $15.5 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2007-2008 academic year. The figures for the previous two academic years were only slightly lower.

Several recent studies have found that in terms of scientific publications, citations, and patents, international students and scholars have made exceptional contributions to the United States, proportionately greater than those made by U.S.-born scientists. In many fields of science and engineering, foreign students make up the majority of doctorate recipients. Foreign scholars and graduates fill important positions in universities, high-tech industries and research establishments.

International students and scholars enrich American campuses and businesses by adding diversity and providing American students and scholars with greater understanding and knowledge of foreign cultures and governments. Even after international scholars leave, many of them continue to collaborate with scholars in the United States. Many return to their home countries to become respected scientists and leaders, bringing with them positive attitudes toward the United States and fostering mutual understanding, respect, and cooperation.

Issues and Problems

For many years, the high quality of educational and research opportunities in the United States has resulted in a brain drain of talented students and scholars from other nations. Due to increasing global competition for these people from both developing and developed nations, this trend has slowed and appeared to be reversing in 2009. Two reports from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation from that year found that fewer foreign students expressed a desire to remain permanently in the United States than in the past, and that more perceived the United States to be declining as a land of opportunity. Greatly improved opportunities in many developing countries, particularly those of India and China, may well influence stay rates of graduates and scholars.

Developed nations have also increased their efforts to retain and attract international students and scholars. In particular the forty-six European Higher Education Area (EHEA) countries have initiated the Bologna Process to make academic standards and quality assurance standards of its nations more comparable and compatible, resulting in greater mobility among nations and increased collaboration.

The majority opinion, particularly in academia and research institutes, is that having fewer international scholars and students studying and working in the United States would be detrimental to the scientific and technological innovation crucial to the success of the U.S. economy. There is a counter opinion, mostly articulated by the Center for Immigration Studies, that having too many foreignborn scholars and students in the United States is counterproductive. They contend that NAFSA greatly exaggerates the economic contribution of foreign students and that the United States is damaging its long-termcompetitiveness by displaying a preference for foreign over domestic students.

Critics have further argued that U.S. scholars, researchers, and students are denied opportunities and discouraged from choosing careers in science and engineering because of foreign-born competitors. The negative impact is argued to be particularly great on minority students. They also propose that student visas are an ideal way for terrorists to enter and stay in the United States and that foreign scholars might take part in espionage for their governments and businesses. While the decline in the U.S. economy that began in 2008 has resulted in some U.S. firms reducing their hiring of foreign scholars and students due to fear of political backlash, the federal government and U.S. universities have continued to work to increase their number.

Jerome L. Neapolitan

Further Reading

  • Committee on Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States, Board on Higher Education andWorkforce, National Research Council. Policy Implications of International Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars in the United States.Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2005. This book explores the impact of international students and scholars on the United States, particularly educational institutions. 
  • Gürüz, Kemal. Higher Education and International Student Mobility in the Global Knowledge Economy. Albany: State University ofNewYork Press, 2008. Examines how the international mobility of students has changed over time. 
  • Institute of International Education. Higher Education on the Move: New Developments in Global Mobility. Leetsdale, Pa.: IIE Books, 2009. Collection of eight articles, each by a different author, exploring recent changes in higher education, the world economy, and governmental changes. 
  • _______. Open Doors 2008: Report on International Educational Exchange. Leetsdale, Pa.: IIE Books, 2009. Annual report that provides a statistical analysis of international students and scholars at U.S. academic institutions. Much of the data and analysis are available at the Open Doors Web site (http://opendoors.iienetwork.org). 
  • Wadhwa, Vivek, Anna Lee, Richard Freeman, and Alex Salkeyer. Losing theWorld’s Best and Brightest. Kansas City, Mo.: Kauffman Foundation, 2009. Report arguing that the United States may be on the verge of experiencing a reverse brain drain. 

See also: “Brain drain”; Chinese Student Protection Act of 1992; Economic consequences of immigration; Education; Foreign exchange students; Hayakawa, S. I.; Homeland Security, Department of; Multiculturalism; Science.

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