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More International Students Enroll in U.S. Grad STEM Programs: The Numbers and Their Impact

January 2023

In the United States, the number of international students in graduate STEM programs far outweighs domestic ones. In industries such as computer science — a highly coveted field with direct employment pipelines to the big tech companies like Google®, Apple® and Microsoft® — 72% of grad students were international in 2019. Fields like petroleum engineering have international student enrollment rates as high as 81%.

In fact, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, there was an overall 95% increase in international grad students over the previous year, while domestic grad student enrollment dropped 4% (certainly the pandemic played a role in these statistics). For the first time in over a decade, when it comes to the STEM fields specifically, there are more international grad students than domestic ones.

While this doesn’t mean universities prefer international students over domestic ones, nor does the enrollment numbers for international students push out domestic students from graduate STEM programs. While the influx of international students in these programs helps fulfill recruitment goals for institutions, research shows they also encourage domestic students to study STEM programs as well, providing valuable experience in a diverse learning environment. 2 Additionally, many grad programs enjoy the cultural inclusivity that international students bring to the table, along with their domestic counterparts.

The preferred field of study for international students

STEM degrees make up the bulk of international graduate student pursuits with more than 60% of new grad students in math and computer science, and half of engineering students being from abroad.

These degrees, including the STEM MBA, are particularly appealing to international students in part due to an extended visa perk called the STEM OPT (Optional Practical Training) that comes with some of those degrees. U.S. corporations rely on this pool of international grad students in the science and tech fields because job demand is growing exponentially, and a diverse employee population keeps American corporations competitive when doing business in a globalized economy.

In 2019 and 2020, 49% of all STEM master’s degrees and 57% of all STEM doctorate degrees were conferred to international students. The majority of these international students studying in the United States were from China and India, however, current student visa challenges with China and China’s COVID policies are affecting that student population. Conversely, the visa disbursement for Indian students to study in the United States has risen significantly, with eight out of ten degree-seeking students from India entering at the graduate level.

Tighter borders, expanded opportunities

While the United States may be seeing an increase in international grad student interest, there are still challenges when trying to attract this population as higher-ed competition around the globe has heated up in recent years. Many countries are working to speed up the process for student visas as international students play a significant role in most university enrollments around the world. Meanwhile, the cost of a U.S.-based degree consistently soars with fewer financial assistance options for international students, and some student visas are still backlogged depending on the country of origin. Additionally, the quality of higher education has been significantly improving in countries around the world, giving students options other than the United States, if they want to study abroad.

While politicians may make borders and immigration part of their campaign rhetoric, the reality is that the business and STEM industries play a significant role in our globalized economy and the ever-competitive race for innovation, causing borders to become blurred, if not erased altogether, within those fields. In fact, doing business with countries who are not politically aligned with the United States has long been common practice (for example: China and Saudi Arabia). Politics aside, many countries recognize that higher education is one of the few unifying entities that enables people from around the world, of many different backgrounds and cultures, to contribute viewpoints and innovations in a number of growing and competitive fields of study, especially STEM programs.

The Benefit of International Grad Students

So, why do universities and companies want and rely on international students? How do these students benefit the United States in general? For one, succeeding in a global economy requires people of all backgrounds and cultures to work together and understand how other cultures do business. Cross cultural education for both foreign and domestic students fosters a deeper understanding of different cultures and dispels stereotypes. Additionally, the STEM fields are amongst the fastest growing and most competitive. With an abundance of jobs and fewer domestic students enrolling in those particular graduate disciplines, American companies rely on the pool of international applicants to stay competitive and relevant on the world stage of advancing technologies. And, according to a NAFSA study, international students in the United States currently contribute $34 billion to our economy, a 20% increase over the previous year.

The bottom line

While the promotion of STEM programs in the United States continues to encourage domestic students to pursue those degrees, particularly targeting females and those from underrepresented backgrounds, the fact is that this will always remain an area where international students are relevant and successful both in grad programs and the workplace.

1 Foreign Students and Graduate STEM Enrollment (

2 International-Students-in-Science-and-Engineering.NFAP-Policy-Brief.August-2021.pdf

Related Resources

What is a STEM-designated MBA?

The STEM MBA has emerged out of an ever-growing need for people with the skill sets in both the business and technology worlds in an increasing competitive, international job market.

Computer Scientists Lead Growth in STEM Field

STEM subjects have taken a front seat as countries from around the world continually advance and compete with each other.