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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 2:
Structure of U.S. Higher Education

Enrollment in Higher Education

Higher Education Degrees
Foreign Doctoral Degree Recipients
International S&E Higher Education
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Figure 2-27

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Figure 2-28

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Figure 2-29

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Figure 2-30

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Figure 2-31

Higher Education in Science and Engineering

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Foreign Doctoral Degree Recipients

Major Countries/Economies of Origin
Stay Rates

Foreign recipients of U.S. doctoral degrees are an important part of the internationally mobile high-skilled labor force. When they return to their home countries or otherwise leave the United States after completing their degrees, they add to the stock of potential leaders in research and education, making those countries more competitive in S&E. Those who remain in the United States enhance the capability of U.S. S&E enterprise. In many cases, regardless of where they settle, their career trajectories foster ties between their countries of origin and the United States.

This section includes data on the places of origin of foreign doctorate recipients and on their stay rates in the United States after completing their degrees. The data are derived from the NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates, with special tabulations from 1985 to 2000.

Major Countries/Economies of Origin top of page

Students from 11 major foreign countries/economies and three regional groupings together accounted for nearly 70 percent of all foreign recipients of U.S. S&E doctorates from 1985 to 2000. The major Asian countries/economies sending doctoral students to the United States have been China, Taiwan, India, and South Korea, in that order. Major European countries of origin have been Germany, Greece, the United Kingdom, Italy, and France. Data on regional groupings of other Western European, Scandinavian, and Eastern European countries are also given, as are data for Mexico and Canada. Because students from Asia represent such a large proportion of foreign S&E doctoral degree recipients at U.S. universities, trends in their earned degrees are examined separately.


U.S. S&E doctorates earned by Asian students increased from the mid-1980s to the mid- to late 1990s, followed by a decline. Most of the degrees were in engineering and biological and physical sciences. From 1985 to 2000, students from the four Asian countries/economies (China, Taiwan, India, and South Korea) earned more than 50 percent of S&E doctoral degrees awarded to foreign students in the United States (68,500 of 138,000), four times more than students from Europe (16,000).

From 1985 to 2000, students from the People's Republic of China earned, cumulatively, more than 26,500 S&E doctoral degrees at U.S. universities, mainly in biological and physical sciences and engineering (table 2-9 text table). The number of S&E doctorates earned by Chinese students increased from 138 in 1985 to almost 3,000 in 1996. After this peak year, their number of doctorates from U.S. institutions declined and leveled off until 1999 and then increased slightly in 2000 and 2001.[12]

Students from Taiwan received the second-largest number of S&E doctorates at U.S. universities. Between 1985 and 2000, Taiwanese students earned almost 15,500 S&E doctoral degrees, mainly in engineering and biological and physical sciences (table 2-9 text table). Taiwan was an early user of U.S. doctoral education. In 1985, students from Taiwan earned more U.S. S&E doctoral degrees than students from India and China combined. The Taiwanese number of degrees increased rapidly for almost a decade, from 746 in 1985 to 1,300 at their peak in 1994. However, as Taiwanese universities increased their capacity for advanced S&E education in the 1990s, S&E doctorates earned from U.S. universities by Taiwanese students declined from 1,300 in 1994 to 669 in 2000.[13]

Indian students earned more than 13,000 S&E doctoral degrees at U.S. universities over the period, mainly in engineering and physical and biological sciences. They also earned by far the largest number of U.S. doctoral degrees awarded to any foreign group in computer and information sciences (table 2-9 text table). The decade-long increase in U.S. S&E doctorates earned by Indian students ended in 1996, followed by 4 years of decline. The decline was particularly marked in engineering (57 percent) and computer sciences (50 percent).[14]

South Korean students earned more than 13,000 U.S. S&E doctorates, mainly in engineering, physical sciences, and psychology and social sciences (table 2-9 text table). Their number of S&E doctoral degrees increased from 300 in 1985 to more than 1,000 in 1990, fluctuated around 1,000 for the first half of the 1990s, and then declined and leveled off at about 700 by the end of the decade.


European students earned less than one-fourth the number of S&E doctorates earned by Asian students and tended to focus more on social sciences and psychology than their Asian counterparts (table 2-10 text table).

Western European countries whose students earned the most U.S. S&E doctorates from 1985 to 2000 were Germany, Greece, the United Kingdom, Italy, and France, in that order. From 1985 to 1993, Greece and the United Kingdom were the primary European countries of origin; thereafter, their numbers of doctoral degree recipients declined and leveled off. Germany was the only major Western European country whose students earned an increasing number of U.S. S&E doctorates throughout the 1990s (figure 2-27 figure).[15] Scandinavians received fewer U.S. doctorates than students from the other European regions, with a field distribution roughly similar to that for other Western Europeans.

The number of Eastern European students earning S&E doctorates at U.S. universities increased from fewer than 100 in 1990 to more than 600 in 2000 (figure 2-28 figure). A higher proportion of Eastern European (89 percent) than Western European (71 percent) recipients of U.S. doctorates were in S&E fields. Within S&E, Western Europeans were more likely to study psychology and social sciences and engineering, and Eastern Europeans tended to study physical sciences, engineering, and mathematics (table 2-10 text table).

North America

The Canadian and Mexican shares of U.S. S&E doctoral degrees were small compared with those from Asia and Europe The number of degrees earned by Canadian students increased rapidly in the second half of the 1980s, from about 150 in 1985 to more than 300 in 1991, and then remained relatively stable in the 1990s. Fifty-eight percent of Canadian doctoral degree students in U.S. universities earned S&E doctorates, mainly in psychology and social and biological sciences (figure 2-29 figure and table 2-10 text table). Mexican doctoral students in U.S. universities are more concentrated in S&E fields than are Canadian students. Eighty-three percent of the doctoral degrees earned by Mexican students at U.S. universities were in S&E fields, mainly engineering, psychology and social sciences, and biological and agricultural sciences. The number of doctoral degree recipients from Mexico fluctuated and increased slowly throughout the period, from 100 degrees earned in 1985 to more than 200 in 2000.

Stay Rates top of page

Almost 30 percent of the actively employed S&E doctorate holders in the United States are foreign born, as are many postdocs. Most of those working in the United States (excluding postdocs) obtained their doctorates from U.S. universities. Stay rates, based on stated plans at receipt of doctorate, indicate how much the United States relies on inflow of doctorate holders from different countries and whether working in the United States remains an attractive option for foreign students who obtain U.S. doctorates. In chapter 3, we report an analysis using a stay-rate measure based on examination of Social Security records several years after the doctorate.

Historically, approximately 50 percent of foreign students who earned S&E degrees at universities in the United States reported that they planned to stay in the United States, and a smaller proportion said they had firm offers to do so (NSF/SRS 1998). However, these percentages increased significantly in the 1990s. In the 1990–93 period, for example, of the foreign S&E doctoral degree recipients who reported their plans, 63 percent planned to remain in the United States after receiving their degree, and 41 percent had firm offers. By the 1998–2001 period, 76 percent of foreign doctoral degree recipients in S&E fields with known plans intended to stay in the United States, and 54 percent accepted firm offers to do so (appendix table 2-31 Microsoft Excel icon). Although the number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by foreign students declined after 1996, the number of students who had firm plans to remain in the United States declined only slightly from its 1996 peak. Each year from 1996 to 2000, around 4,500 foreign doctoral degree recipients had firm offers to remain in the United States at the time of degree conferral, with a slight increase in 2001 (figure 2-30 figure).

Stay rates vary by place of origin. From 1985 to 2000, most U.S. S&E doctoral degree recipients from China and India planned to remain in the United States for further study and employment. In 2001, 70 and 77 percent, respectively, reported accepting firm offers for employment or postdoctoral research in the United States (figure 2-31 figure).

Recipients from South Korea and Taiwan are less likely to stay in the United States. Over the 1985–2000 period, only 26 percent of South Koreans and 31 percent of Taiwanese reported accepting firm offers to remain in the United States. Both the number of S&E students from these Asian economies and the number who intended to stay in the United States after receipt of their doctoral degree fell in the 1990s. This decline may be because Taiwan and South Korea have expanded and improved their advanced S&E programs and created R&D institutions that offer more attractive S&T careers for their expatriate scientists and engineers. Still, by 2001, about 50 percent of their new U.S. doctorate holders reported accepting U.S. appointments.

Historically, a relatively high percentage of U.S. S&E doctoral degree recipients from the United Kingdom planned to stay in the United States, whereas France and Italy had small percentages compared with other Western European countries (NSF/SRS 1998). However, by 2001, 50 percent or more of the doctoral degree students from these countries had firm plans to stay, as did those from Germany (figure 2-31 figure). Stay rates for Eastern European doctoral degree recipients were high, exceeded only by those for India (appendix table 2-31 Microsoft Excel icon).

The percentage of doctoral degree students who had firm plans to stay in the United States in 2001 was higher for Canada (58 percent) than for Mexico (38 percent), which has one of the lowest stay rates of all the major countries of origin of foreign U.S. doctoral degree recipients (figure 2-31 figure).[16]

A study of U.S. doctoral degree recipients from foreign countries explored the factors affecting the decision to stay in the United States (Gupta, Nerad, and Cerny 2003). The study cited numerous factors, stressing the strength of preexisting ties to the recipients' home countries. Among the doctorate holders studied, the principal source of funding was related to their likelihood of staying in the United States: those who stayed were more likely to have been funded primarily by RAs and TAs, and those who returned to their home countries were more likely to have relied on funding from their national government or their employer.


[12]  The number of S&E doctoral degrees earned by Chinese students within Chinese universities continued to increase throughout the decade, from 1,069 in 1990 to 8,153 in 2001 (National Science Board 2002 and China's National Research Center for Science and Technology for Development, special tabulations, 2003).

[13]  A current science and technology policy debate in Taiwan is focused on whether to encourage more Taiwanese to study at U.S. universities for the subsequent benefits of networking between Taiwanese and U.S. scientists and engineers.

[14]  Increasing employment opportunities in IT and software engineering (in the United States and India) may have lessened the incentive for completing a doctoral degree in these fields.

[15]  Germany is also the top country of origin of foreign doctoral degree recipients at U.K. universities (National Science Board 2002). German doctoral programs are long, and students may prefer the shorter U.K. and U.S. degree programs.

[16]  The Mexican government's scholarship-loan programs erase the debt for those who enter public research universities on their return from over-seas study (National Council for Science and Technology 2001).

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