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International students play a critical role in sustaining quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduate programs at U.S. universities, a new report from the National Foundation for American Policy (NFAP) argues. 

It will come as no surprise to observers of graduate education that the report documents the fact that foreign students make up the majority of enrollments in U.S. graduate programs in many STEM fields, accounting for 70.3 percent of all full-time graduate students in electrical engineering, 63.2 percent in computer science, 60.4 percent in industrial engineering, and more than 50 percent in chemical, materials and mechanical engineering, as well as in economics (a non-STEM field). However, the report, which analyzes National Science Foundation enrollment data from 2010 by field and institution, also shows that these striking averages mask even higher proportions at many individual universities. For example, there are 36 graduate programs in electrical engineering where the proportion of international students exceeds 80 percent, including seven where it exceeds 90. (The analysis is limited to those programs with at least 30 full-time students.)

Graduate Electrical Engineering Programs With More Than 90 Percent International Enrollment


Number of U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents Enrolled Full-Time

Number of International Students Enrolled Full-Time

Percent International Enrollment

University of Texas at Arlington




Fairleigh Dickinson University




Illinois Institute of Technology




University of Houston




State University of New York at Buffalo




New Jersey Institute of Technology




Rochester Institute of Technology




    National Foundation for American Policy analysis of National Science Foundation data from 2010.

“International students help many universities have enough graduate students to support research programs that help attract top faculty and that also thereby help U.S. students by having a higher-quality program than they otherwise would have,” said Stuart Anderson, NFAP’s executive director and author of the report. Without them, he said, “you’d see a shrinking across the board where you’d have just certain schools that are able to support good programs. That would lead to a shrinking of U.S. leadership in education and technology if you have many fewer programs with high-quality research and top-level professors.”

“To some extent this reflects some of what’s going on in our society within the U.S. in terms of trying to push for more interest in STEM fields,” said Jonathan Bredow, professor and chair of the electrical engineering department at the University of Texas at Arlington, a program with more than 90 percent international enrollment.  “Domestic students tend to be more interested in going out and getting a job right after a bachelor’s degree. Some see a value of getting a master’s degree but in terms of the Ph.D., I think it’s largely seen as unnecessary.”

“There’s a relatively small number of high-quality domestic students who can be accepted into our master’s and Ph.D. programs,” said Leonid Tsybeskov, professor and chair of the electrical and computer engineering department at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He added that those domestic students who are strong candidates typically apply to higher-ranked programs than NJIT’s.

Indeed, said Anderson, “You talk to the professors, they say, ‘O.K., if we were MIT or Stanford we could get all the top U.S. students,' but by definition there are only a few of those schools. Obviously everyone can’t be MIT or Stanford." At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the proportion of international students in graduate electrical engineering programs is 52.5 percent and, in computer science, 35.3 percent. At Stanford, 56 percent of graduate electrical engineering students and 43.7 percent of graduate computer science students are international.

The report also emphasizes the value that international students can bring to the U.S. economy after graduation as researchers and entrepreneurs. Measures that would make it easier for STEM graduate students to obtain visas to work in the U.S. after graduation – measures that many in higher education see as crucial to the U.S. maintaining its edge in attracting international graduate students -- are pending in Congress (and are included in the comprehensive immigration bill recently passed by the Senate).

"This report is very well-timed,” said Julia Kent, director of communications and advancement for the Council of Graduate Schools. “Obviously, for the policy reasons -- the pending legislation about STEM visas -- and second because there is data out there right now which suggests that we have some cause for concern in this country about the flow of international graduate students to the United States which we have always counted on. There is now more competition for international graduate students. Other countries are developing policies to promote the influx of foreign students to their shores, and there are also ways in which the current economy in the United States has reduced funding support for graduate students, which makes it more difficult to attract students to U.S. programs with attractive funding packages.” 

CGS data on applications to U.S. graduate schools released in April show that total international applications grew by a meager 1 percent this year and that there were actually drops in applications from certain key sending countries, including China (-5 percent), South Korea (-13 percent) and Taiwan (-13 percent). On the plus side, applications from India increased 20 percent. 

"It's too soon to know how this data will actually affect enrollments, but the preliminary data show that there is some cause for concern,” Kent said. 

Graduate Computer Science Programs With More than 90 Percent International Enrollment


Number of U.S. Citizens or Permanent Residents Enrolled Full-Time

Number of International Students Enrolled Full-Time

Percent International Enrollment

San Diego State University




Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi




Illinois Institute of Technology




University of Missouri at Kansas City




University of New Haven




San Jose State University




Fairleigh Dickinson University




     National Foundation for American Policy analysis of National Science Foundation data from 2010.

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