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Foreign Science and Engineering Students in the United States

NSF 10-324 | July 2010 | PDF format. PDF  

by Joan Burrelli[1]

In 2008, about 568,000 foreign students (those holding temporary visas) studied at U.S. universities and colleges, 248,000 of them in science and engineering (S&E). There was an expectation (ACE 2009; Fackler 2009; IIE 2009) that fall 2009 foreign enrollments might be negatively affected by the 2008–09 world financial crisis because of schools' restrictions on enrollment, declines in institutional funds available for graduate student financial support, and declines in the value of foreign home currencies compared to the U.S. dollar, as well as the price of education in the United States compared to other countries and the increased capacity for education in the home countries. A recent report from the Council of Graduate Schools showed no increase from fall 2008 to fall 2009 in first-time foreign graduate enrollment and only a slight increase in overall foreign graduate enrollment after several years of double-digit increases (CGS 2009).

This InfoBrief addresses trends in foreign enrollment at all levels in S&E fields as well as in all fields in U.S. institutions of higher education through fall 2009. Using data from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), this InfoBrief examines changes in S&E enrollment by level, field, and country of origin from fall 2006 to fall 2009.

Foreign Enrollment by Field

Foreign enrollment in U.S. universities and colleges increased by 3% in fall 2009 to 586,000, rising 2% for non-S&E fields (to 327,000) and 4% for science and engineering (to 259,000) (table 1). The increase in S&E enrollment was larger than in recent years, but for the 2006–09 period, S&E students accounted for a steady 44% of total foreign enrollment.

TABLE 1. Foreign students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, by field: 2006–09.

  Table 1 Source Data: Excel file

A non-S&E field, business, accounted for the largest number of foreign students (143,000). Among S&E fields, engineering and computer sciences were the two largest fields enrolling foreign students. Engineering (99,000) accounted for 17% of foreign students in fall 2009, and computer sciences (43,000) accounted for another 7%. Foreign enrollment rose in 2009 in all S&E fields except psychology; mathematics and economics showed the greatest percentage gains.

Foreign Enrollment by Level

Although about equal numbers of all foreign students are in undergraduate and graduate programs, graduate students far outnumber undergraduates (172,000 versus 87,000, respectively) among S&E students. From fall 2008 to fall 2009, graduate S&E enrollment rose 3% to approximately 172,000 students (table 2). Most of this increase occurred among master's degree students. Enrollment of new foreign graduate students in S&E programs dropped 2% from 2008 to 2009, suggesting smaller increases in overall foreign enrollment in years to come. In non-S&E graduate programs, overall foreign student enrollment rose 1% in 2009, and enrollment of new foreign students remained about the same as in 2008.

TABLE 2. S&E and non-S&E foreign students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, by academic level: 2006–09.

  Table 2 Source Data: Excel file

The number of foreign students enrolled in undergraduate S&E degree programs in U.S. academic institutions rose 6% to approximately 87,000 students between fall 2008 and fall 2009 (table 2). All of this increase was in bachelor's degree programs. In non-S&E programs, the number of foreign undergraduates increased 2%. In contrast to the trends among new graduate students, the number of new foreign undergraduates enrolled in S&E programs increased 5% from fall 2008 to fall 2009, although the gain was substantially smaller than the 16% increase from fall 2007 to fall 2008.

Foreign Enrollment by Country of Citizenship

India, China, and South Korea are the top countries of citizenship of foreign students in the United States in S&E and in non-S&E fields. In addition, Saudi Arabia, Nepal, Japan, Turkey, Mexico, Canada, and Taiwan are among the top 10 countries/economies of citizenship of foreign S&E students in the United States (figure 1).

FIGURE 1. Foreign S&E students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, by country of citizenship: Fall 2009.

  Figure 1 Source Data: Excel file

Two countries—India, with 68,000 S&E students, and China, with 54,000—accounted for almost half (47%) of all foreign S&E students in the United States in December 2009.

Foreign student enrollment from 6 of the top 10 countries/economies of citizenship decreased in 2009, and new student enrollment from 7 of the top 10 countries/economies decreased as well. Overall S&E enrollment from India and from China increased in 2009, but the situation among new S&E students was more mixed: enrollment of new S&E students from India declined 17%, but enrollment of new S&E students from China increased 25%. Overall S&E enrollment and enrollment of new S&E students from South Korea were about the same in 2009 as in 2008 (table 3). In addition, S&E enrollment in the United States increased from the Middle East (notably Saudi Arabia and Iran) and Africa but decreased from Europe, Central and South America, and Canada.

TABLE 3. Foreign science and engineering students in U.S. higher education institutions, by region and selected country/economy: Fall 2006–fall 2009.

  Table 3 Source Data: Excel file

Level of enrollment and fields of study differ by country of citizenship. Two of the top three countries—India and China—send far more S&E than non-S&E students and more graduate students than undergraduate students to the United States (table 4). More than half of the students from India study engineering or computer sciences, mostly at the master's level. Almost half of the students from China study either business or engineering. Most Chinese business students (96%) are enrolled in undergraduate or master's programs, and more than half of Chinese engineering students are enrolled in doctoral programs.

TABLE 4. Foreign students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, by academic level, top country of citizenship, and field: Fall 2009.

  Table 4 Source Data: Excel file

In contrast, South Korea sends far more non-S&E than S&E students and more undergraduate than graduate students. More than two-thirds of the students from South Korea are enrolled in non-S&E fields. Business and humanities account for the largest numbers of South Koreans in non-S&E fields, and engineering accounts for the largest number of South Koreans enrolled in S&E fields.

Mobility of Foreign Students

A sizeable number of foreign students (about 10,000) coming to the United States to study may have previously migrated from their native country. Four percent of foreign S&E students in U.S. universities are citizens of countries in which they were not born. Canada, India, and the United Kingdom send the largest numbers of nonnative-born citizens to study S&E in the United States (table 5). Of the approximately 7,000 Canadian citizen S&E students in the United States in fall 2008, 30% (or about 2,000 students) were not born in Canada; more than half of them were born in Asia—about 500 in China, 200 in Hong Kong, 200 in Taiwan, and more than 100 each in India and South Korea. The United Kingdom also sends a relatively large fraction (30%) of students who are not native-born; of these, the largest number were born in Hong Kong. Only a small percentage (2%) of Indian students in the United States were not born in India; however, because the number of students from India is so large, the number of nonnative-born students from India who come to study in the United States is also large. Countries of birth for Indian citizens in the United States include the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Oman.

TABLE 5. Top countries/economies of birth for students from Canada, India, and the United Kingdom enrolled in S&E programs in U.S. higher education institutions: Fall 2009.

  Table 5 Source Data: Excel file


Confirming expectations and recent findings from the Council of Graduate Schools, the SEVIS data on foreign enrollment in U.S. institutions showed slowing growth in foreign enrollment in fall 2009 and no increase in enrollment of first-time foreign students. Despite the drop in new students from many countries, especially India, foreign enrollment in S&E fields continued to increase in fall 2009, with increases primarily from China and Middle Eastern countries. Continued weakness in the U.S. and global economies and long-term budget woes in states and universities (Federal Reserve 2009; Nelson 2010) may affect the number of new foreign students coming to the United States to study over the next several years.

Data Sources and Limitations

The data in this InfoBrief are from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's SEVIS database. SEVIS maintains information on foreign nationals who are students and exchange visitors under F, M, or J visas. Fall 2009 data in this InfoBrief refer only to active foreign national students in the United States enrolled in U.S. colleges or universities as of 6 December 2009, including those on Optional Practical Training (temporary employment directly related to the student's major area of study either during or after completion of the degree program). The data do not include exchange visitors, students enrolled in primary or secondary schools, flight training programs, language training programs, vocational programs, or "other" programs (including certificate and other non-degree programs). The reference dates for the fall 2006, 2007, and 2008 data are 21 November 2006; 21 November 2007; and 18 November 2008, respectively.


American Council on Education (ACE). 2009. Sizing up the Competition: The Future of International Postsecondary Student Enrollment in The United States. Washington, DC.

Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). 2009. Findings from the 2009 CGS International Graduate Admissions Survey, Phase III: Final Offers of Admission and Enrollment. Washington, DC.

Fackler M. 2009. Global financial crisis upends the plans of many South Koreans to study abroad. The New York Times 10 January.

Federal Reserve Board. 2009. Minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee, 3–4 November 2009. http://www.federalreserve.gov/newsevents/press/monetary/20091124a.htm. Accessed 1 February 2010.

Institute for International Education (IIE). 2009. Fall 2009 International Student Enrollment Survey. http://opendoors.iienetwork.org. Accessed 1 February 2010.

Nelson L. 2010. Financial outlook remains negative for higher education, Moody's says. The Chronicle of Higher Education 19 January. http://chronicle.com/article/Financial-Outlook-Remains-N/63642/. Accessed 1 February 2010.


[1] Joan Burrelli, Science and Engineering Indicators Program, Division of Science Resources Statistics, National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Suite 965, Arlington VA 22230 (jburrelli@nsf.gov; 703-292-7793).

National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics
Foreign Science and Engineering Students in the United States
Arlington, VA (NSF 10-324) [July 2010]

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