International S&E Higher Education

In the 1990s, many countries, coming to view an educated population and workforce as a valuable national resource, began to expand their higher education systems. Flows of students worldwide increased, often reflecting government incentives and programs. More recently, several countries have adopted policies to encourage the return of students who studied abroad, attract international students, or both. Students who enroll in tertiary (postsecondary) institutions outside their own countries have opportunities to expand their knowledge of other societies and languages and improve their employability in globalized labor markets.

This section provides data on international students in U.S. institutions (enrollment and degrees earned) and the U.S. position in higher education within a global context. The data show a recent decline in overall international student enrollment in U.S. institutions. Data on degree awards, however, show that more foreign students continue to earn U.S. S&E degrees. Foreign students on temporary visas earn a substantial proportion of U.S. doctoral degrees in S&E fields such as engineering, computer sciences, and economics. The global emphasis on building S&E capabilities is evident in international data: China has seen a rapid increase in its S&E degree production over time, compared with a more moderate rise in the United States and the EU.

International Students in U.S. Higher Education: Enrollment

In fall 2018, about 804,400 international students enrolled in degree programs in U.S. higher education institutions (Table 2-3). Although these students possess citizenship from 225 countries or economies of origin, 4 countries—China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia—were the top senders of undergraduate and graduate students, accounting for more than half of the total (Figure 2-14).

International students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, by broad field and academic level: 2012–18

(Number)
Note(s)

Data include active foreign national students on F-1 visas and exclude those on optional practical training. Undergraduate level includes associate's and bachelor's degrees; graduate level includes master's and doctoral degrees. Numbers are rounded to the nearest 10. Detail may not add to total because of rounding. The data reflect fall enrollment in a given year and include students with "active" status as of 15 November of that year.

Source(s)

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, special tabulations (2018) of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database.

Science and Engineering Indicators

International students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, by region, country, or economy of origin: 2018

Note(s)

Data include active foreign national students on F-1 visas and exclude those on optional practical training. Undergraduate level includes associate's and bachelor's degrees; graduate level includes master's and doctoral degrees. The data reflect fall enrollment in a given year and include students with "active" status as of 15 November of that year. Figure shading represents the natural log of the number of students.

Source(s)

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, special tabulations (2018) of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Between 2017 and 2018, the number of international students declined by about 4,000 (less than 1%). This represents a second year of decline but is smaller than the decline of about 31,500 students (nearly 4%) between 2016 and 2017. Underlying this overall decline is a mixed picture that varies by student level, field of study, and country of origin.

In 2018, just over half of all international students were enrolled at the undergraduate level (mostly in bachelor’s degree programs). Between 2017 and 2018, the number of international undergraduate students declined (by about 5,500 or just over 1%); however, the number studying S&E fields increased (by about 2,500 or just over 1%), after holding essentially flat between 2016 and 2017 (Table 2-3, Figure 2-15). The rise in S&E enrollment was driven by rising enrollment in science; by contrast, enrollment declined in engineering for the second year in a row (Table S2-13). Among the top five countries sending undergraduates to study engineering, only Vietnam saw consistent increases in the numbers over the last 2 years (Table S2-13).

International undergraduate students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, by broad area of study: 2016–18

Note(s)

Data include active foreign national students on F-1 visas and exclude those on optional practical training. Undergraduate level includes associate's and bachelor's degrees. Numbers are rounded to the nearest 10. Detail may not add to total because of rounding. The data reflect fall enrollment in a given year and include students with "active" status as of 15 November of that year.

Source(s)

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, special tabulations (2018) of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database.

Science and Engineering Indicators

Unlike undergraduate enrollment, international graduate student enrollment rose slightly from 2017 to 2018 (from 368,000 to 369,000) after a considerable decline (6%) between 2016 and 2017. The number studying S&E fields also increased (by 2%) (Table 2-3). Although these increases do not erase the declines of the previous year, they call into question whether those declines represent a trend. As is the case for undergraduates, the rise in S&E graduate enrollment was driven by those studying science fields, whose numbers increased back to 2016 levels. The number of those studying engineering, however, declined for the second year in a row. Since 2016, countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have seen declines in the numbers of graduate students, especially in engineering. But China and India, and the contrast between them, dominate the story because of the large numbers of students from those countries who study in the United States (Figure 2-16, Table S2-14).

International graduate students enrolled in U.S. higher education institutions, by broad area of study: 2016–18

Note(s)

Data include active foreign national students on F-1 visas and exclude those on optional practical training. Graduate level includes master's and doctoral degrees. Numbers are rounded to the nearest 10. Detail may not add to total because of rounding. The data reflect fall enrollment in a given year and include students with "active" status as of 15 November of that year.

Source(s)

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, special tabulations (2018) of the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) database.

Science and Engineering Indicators

The number of Chinese S&E graduate students at U.S. institutions has increased by more than 8,000 (11%) since 2016, with the largest gains in computer sciences and mathematics and statistics. India’s numbers, during the same interval, declined sharply, by nearly 21,000 (22%). In 2016, India sent the most students to study engineering, surpassing China by nearly 9,000. China has now surpassed India as the largest sender of graduate students in engineering, largely due to a major reduction in the number of Indian engineering graduate students (a 28% decline) during this interval.

International Students in U.S. Higher Education: Degrees Earned

S&E Bachelor’s Degrees

Students in the United States on temporary visas have consistently earned a small share (around 4%–6%) of S&E bachelor’s degrees, although their total number more than doubled from 17,000 in 2009 to nearly 42,000 in 2017 (Table S2-7). In 2017, temporary visa holders earned a disproportionately large share of bachelor’s degrees awarded in economics (18%), mathematics and statistics (17%), and engineering (10%). S&E fields account for nearly half (46%) of the bachelor’s degrees earned by students on temporary visas.

S&E Graduate Degrees

Students on temporary visas are earning increasing shares of U.S. master’s degrees: 18% in 2017 compared with 12% in 2012 (Table S2-9; their total number increased from about 90,000 to more than 145,000 during this period). Similar to bachelor’s degrees, a considerable share of the master’s degrees earned by students on temporary visas are in S&E fields (56% in 2017, up from 46% in 2012).

Trends at the doctoral level have remained stable for a longer time (Table S2-11). In 2017, students on temporary visas earned about one-quarter of U.S. doctorates awarded across all fields and one-third of those awarded in S&E, around the same as in 2008 (the total numbers for both groups have risen only modestly over the last 10 years). This relatively stable trend is also observed across all broad S&E fields, where the shares of doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders did not change much over the last 10 years.

Temporary visa holders earn half or more of U.S. doctoral degrees in certain S&E fields. In 2017, temporary visa holders earned 57% of doctorates in engineering, reflecting a long-standing pattern. They also earned most doctorates in computer sciences (56%) and economics (59%), as well as nearly half of the doctorates in mathematics and statistics (49%) and physics (45%).

In terms of financing their doctoral education, S&E doctorate recipients on temporary visas were more likely to have an RA (49%) and less likely to use personal funds (2%) than their U.S. citizen and permanent resident peers (27% and 14%, respectively; see Table S2-3); this is a long-standing pattern.

Countries of Origin for Doctorate Recipients

Top Countries and Fields

Since 2000, U.S. universities have awarded nearly a quarter of a million doctorates to temporary visa holders, the vast majority (around 85%) in S&E fields. Over that time, the top three countries—China, India, and South Korea—accounted for just over half (54%) of all international recipients of S&E doctoral degrees, and the top 25 countries accounted for nearly 85% (Table 2-4, Figure 2-17). For 16 of the top 25 countries, more than 80% of the students who earn doctorates in the United States did so in S&E fields. For 15 of the top 25 countries, engineering is the most popular S&E field: engineering doctorates constitute nearly 35% of total doctoral degrees earned by Chinese students at U.S. universities, for example. For India, the figure is nearly 40%, and for Iran, it is nearly 70%.

Top 25 regions, countries, or economies of origin of U.S. doctorate recipients on temporary visas, by field: 2000–17

(Number)

s = suppressed for reasons of confidentiality and/or reliability.

a Excludes cases with unknown region, country, or economy of origin.

b China includes Hong Kong.

Note(s)

Data include temporary residents and non-U.S. citizens with unknown visa status. Rank is based on total number of doctorates.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, special tabulations (2018) of the 2017 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED).

Science and Engineering Indicators

Top 25 regions, countries, or economies of origin of U.S. doctorate recipients on temporary visas, by broad field: 2000–17

Note(s)

Data include temporary residents and non-U.S. citizens with unknown visa status. China includes Hong Kong.

Source(s)

National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, National Science Foundation, special tabulations (2018) of the 2017 Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED).

Science and Engineering Indicators

Although students from South Korea earned only one-third of the number of doctorates earned by students from China between 2000 and 2017, they earned more non-S&E doctorates (about 5,500 for South Korea and 5,200 for China).

Canada and Mexico are in the top 10 countries where students earn doctorates in the United States. For Canadian students earning doctorates in the United States, the most popular S&E fields are biological and social sciences; for Mexican students, the most popular fields are engineering and social sciences.

Although 9 of the top 25 countries are European, only Turkey falls into the top 10. Students from Spain earn the highest percentage of doctorates in non-S&E fields of any of the top 25 countries, at more than 35%. Students from Russia and Romania focus heavily on physical sciences.

Between 2000 and 2008, the number of students earning doctorates at U.S. universities doubled to about 4,500 for China and nearly tripled to 2,300 for India. Since 2008, patterns for these two countries have diverged. Numbers of Chinese doctorate recipients have increased to nearly 5,600 in 2017. Numbers of Indian students have stayed relatively flat, with a slight decline over the last several years to about 2,000. South Korea saw an increase from about 1,000 students earning doctorates in the United States in 2000 to about 1,500 in 2009. Since then, numbers have slowly declined to about 1,100 in 2017. One other notable trend is an increase in the number of doctorate recipients from Iran, rising steadily from about 140 in 2008 to 770 in 2017 (see NCSES SED 2017: Table 26 and, for older trend data, NCSES SED 2010: Table 26).

U.S. Position in Global S&E Higher Education

Educational Attainment

Overall Attainment Levels

Educational attainment, measured as the proportion of a population that has reached a specific level of education, is often used as a proxy for human capital and the skill levels associated with that level (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] 2018a). Although the United States continues to have one of the highest percentages of the population ages 25–64 with a bachelor’s or higher degree, many countries have now surpassed the United States in the percentage of the younger population (ages 25–34) with these levels of education (Figure 2-18). Of 25- to 34-year-olds in the United States, 26% hold a bachelor’s degree, which is higher than the OECD average of 22%. However, only 12% attain education higher than a bachelor’s degree, which is lower than the OECD average of 15% (OECD 2018b). Moreover, the increase in attainment among younger people relative to older people so visible in many systems is not visible in the United States.

Attainment of a bachelor's degree or higher, by region, country, or economy and age group: 2017 or most recent year

OECD = Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Note(s)

Data include degrees at International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) 2011 levels 6 (bachelor's or equivalent), 7 (master's or equivalent), and 8 (doctorate or equivalent). Regions, countries, or economies for which data at the short-cycle tertiary level (ISCED level 5) were not available independently are not included.

Source(s)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Education at a Glance 2018: OECD Indicators (2018).


Science and Engineering Indicators

In the United States, there is large variation in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with a postsecondary degree (in international comparisons, this is often referred to as tertiary attainment). There are differences between demographic groups (Snyder et al. Digest of Education Statistics 2017: Table 104.20 and Table 104.60). There is also geographic variation in the United States, with tertiary attainment levels ranging from a high of 73% in the District of Columbia to a low of 30% in Nevada (OECD 2018b). Parents’ levels of educational attainment also matter: 70% of 25- to 64-year-olds with at least one tertiary-educated parent have themselves attained tertiary education. Percentages are substantially lower for those with less-educated parents.

First University Degrees in S&E Fields

First university degrees are defined as terminal undergraduate degree programs (see the Glossary section for more detailed definition) and are often used in international comparisons to accommodate differences among countries in higher education systems. According to the most recent estimates, the United States awarded nearly 800,000 S&E first university degrees., The 28 EU members together produced nearly 1 million, with the top 6 EU members accounting for about 70% of the EU total. China produced 1.7 million S&E first university degrees in 2015, the most recent year for which data were available. The number of S&E first university degrees produced by China doubled over the last 10 years, while other degree-producing large countries have seen only modest increases (Figure 2-19, Table S2-15). Much of China’s increase has been in engineering, which accounted for nearly 70% of China’s S&E first university degrees in the most recent year available. India reports a figure even higher than China’s (4.6 million in 2016), with more than half (52%) of its S&E first university degrees in the social and behavioral sciences.

S&E first university degrees, by selected region, country, or economy: 2000–16

EU = European Union.

Note(s)

Data are not comparable with data presented in earlier Indicators reports because of a change to the International Standard Classification of Education 2011 and to a more aggregated taxonomy of fields. To facilitate international comparison, data for the United States are those reported to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which varies slightly from the National Science Foundation classification of fields presented in other sections of the report. Data are not available for all regions, countries, or economies for all years. The EU top 6 total includes aggregated data for the six EU members producing the highest number of S&E first university degrees in 2016: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. The dip in data after 2014 may be an artifact of using a different data source through 2014.

Source(s)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD.Stat; Eurostat, Education and training database; Government of Japan, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Survey of Education (various years); National Bureau of Statistics of China, China Statistical Yearbook (various years); Ministry of Education, Educational Statistics of the Republic of China (Taiwan) (various years).

Science and Engineering Indicators

S&E first university degrees as a proportion of all first university degrees vary across countries (Figure 2-20). For the United States, the figure is about 40%, lower than that of China, South Korea, and several European nations. Of the countries and economies displayed in Figure 2-20, the United States awards the highest percentage of degrees in social sciences (19%) but the lowest percentage in engineering (7%).

Total first university degrees by S&E field, by selected region, country, or economy: 2016 or most recent year

Note(s)

Natural sciences include agricultural sciences; biological sciences; computer sciences; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and mathematics. Data are not comparable with data presented in earlier Indicators reports because of a change to the International Standard Classification of Education 2011 and to a more aggregated taxonomy of fields. To facilitate international comparison, data for the United States are those reported to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which varies slightly from the National Science Foundation classification of fields presented in other sections of the report.

Source(s)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD.Stat; Eurostat, Education and training database; Government of Japan, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Survey of Education (various years); National Bureau of Statistics of China, China Statistical Yearbook (various years); Ministry of Education, Educational Statistics of the Republic of China (Taiwan) (various years).

Science and Engineering Indicators

S&E Doctoral Degrees

According to the most recent estimates, the United States awards the largest number of S&E doctoral degrees of any country (about 40,000), followed by China (about 34,000); Germany, India, and the United Kingdom (about 16,000 each); and Russia (about 14,000) (Table S2-16). Together, the European Union (EU) countries awarded more (about 77,000) S&E doctoral degrees than the United States; with the top six EU members accounting for 75% of the EU total. Comparisons of doctoral degree production between the United States and other nations should include the consideration that a substantial number of U.S. S&E doctorate recipients are students on temporary visas. However, many of these doctorate recipients stay in the United States for subsequent employment after obtaining their degree. (For a discussion on “stay rates” of foreign recipients of U.S. doctoral degrees, see the forthcoming Science and Engineering Indicators 2020 report “Science and Engineering Labor Force.”)

The number of S&E doctoral degrees awarded in China rose from 2000 to 2009, when the increase slowed (Figure 2-21). In 2007, the Chinese Ministry of Education announced that China would begin to limit admissions to doctoral programs and focus more on the quality of graduate education (Mooney 2007). When comparing only natural sciences and engineering doctoral degrees, China surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer in 2007 and has remained so ever since (in 2015, China awarded 32,000 doctorates in these fields; the United States awarded 30,000).

S&E doctoral degrees, by selected region, country, or economy: 2000–16

EU = European Union.

Note(s)

Data are not comparable with data presented in earlier Indicators reports because of a change to the International Standard Classification of Education 2011 and to a more aggregated taxonomy of fields. To facilitate international comparison, data for the United States are those reported to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which varies slightly from the National Science Foundation classification of fields presented in other sections of the report. The EU top 6 total includes aggregated data for the six EU members producing the highest number of S&E doctoral degrees in 2016: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. The EU top total 6 includes estimated data for some countries and some years when country data are not available. Data for China and India are shown in only years when data were available.

Source(s)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD.Stat; Eurostat, Education and training database; Government of Japan, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Survey of Education (various years); National Bureau of Statistics of China, China Statistical Yearbook (various years); Ministry of Education, Educational Statistics of the Republic of China (Taiwan) (various years).

Science and Engineering Indicators

In the United States, and in France, Germany, India, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, the largest numbers of S&E doctoral degrees were awarded in natural sciences (Figure 2-22, Table S2-16). In other countries and economies, the proportion of S&E doctoral degrees in engineering is greater; for China, South Korea, and Taiwan, for example, more than 50% of S&E doctorates are awarded in engineering.

Total doctoral degrees by broad area of study, by selected region, country, or economy: 2016 or most recent year

Note(s)

Natural sciences include agricultural sciences; biological sciences; computer sciences; earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences; and mathematics. Data are not comparable with data presented in earlier Indicators reports because of a change to the International Standard Classification of Education 2011 and to a more aggregated taxonomy of fields. To facilitate international comparison, data for the United States are those reported to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which varies slightly from the National Science Foundation classification of fields presented in other sections of the report.

Source(s)

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), OECD.Stat; Eurostat, Education and training database; Government of Japan, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Survey of Education (various years); National Bureau of Statistics of China, China Statistical Yearbook (various years); Ministry of Education, Educational Statistics of the Republic of China (Taiwan) (various years).

Science and Engineering Indicators

International Student Mobility

Internationally mobile students are those who have crossed a national or territorial border for purposes of education and are now enrolled outside their countries of origin. Students become increasingly mobile at more advanced levels of education. Globally, international students account for only 6% of total enrollment in higher education, but they represent 26% of enrollment in doctoral programs (OECD 2018a). International students also favor S&E fields: globally, one-third of them were enrolled in S&E fields in 2016. As shown in earlier sections, these trends are also observed among international students in U.S. institutions.

More internationally mobile students (undergraduate and graduate) come to the United States than to any other country (19% of internationally mobile students worldwide) (Figure 2-23). Other top destinations for international students include the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany, and Russia. The top 20 destination countries in 2016 together received about 75% of internationally mobile students worldwide. China is also an increasingly attractive destination for globally mobile students.

Internationally mobile students enrolled in tertiary education, by selected region, country, or economy: 2016

Note(s)

Data are based on the number of students who have crossed a national border and moved to another country with the objective of studying (i.e., mobile students).

Source(s)

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), special tabulations (2018) of the Institute for Statistics database.

Science and Engineering Indicators