Paradigm shift: The rise of STEM among international students

To kick off International Education Week, the Institute of International Education (IIE) released its 70th Open Doors Report, outlining international student mobility trends in the United States during the 2018/19 academic year.  The report indicated that there was a 0.05% increase in the total number of international students in the U.S. in 2018/19, 52% of whom were pursuing degrees or completing optional practical training (OPT) in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM).

While international students continued to pursue engineering programs more than any other subject in 2018/19, spikes in the number of students pursuing math and computer science programs sustained what little international enrollment growth there was in the U.S. during the last academic year.  These programs deposed business programs as the second-most-popular pursuit of international students in the U.S., revealing a paradigm shift in these students’ motivations to study at American universities.  As the amount of tech jobs continues to grow in industries around the world, international students in the U.S. increasingly devote time and tuition to math and computer science degrees—not the business degrees for which they have typically come here.

Of the 203,461 international students studying or completing OPT in math and computer science in 2018/19, nearly three quarters (148,285) came from India or China.  However, only recently did these programs become the most popular academic pursuit among both cohorts.

Math and computer science were not the most pursued fields of study among Indian students until 2017/18, when they surpassed engineering. Meanwhile, for Chinese students in the U.S., business was the most popular field of study until 2017/18.  In 2018/19, a 17.7% increase in the population of math and computer science students from China, combined with a 7.1% decline in the number of business students, led to the most significant shift in Chinese students’ course preferences in the last five years.

This shift has been some time in the making.  The population of Chinese students pursuing degrees or completing OPT in math and computer science in the U.S. has increased by 58.7% over the last four years, compared to a 12.5% drop in the number of Chinese students of business.  Meanwhile, the number of Indian students of math and computer science has increased by 22.5% during the last four academic years, compared to a 13.5% uptick in the number of engineering students. 

Overall, the number of international students who come to the U.S. for math and computer science programs increased by 44% between 2017/18 and 2018/19.  In the same period, the total number of international students of business and management fell by 9%.

The trends revealed in the 2019 Open Doors Report exist not only in the context of an increasingly technology-driven world, but that of an American immigration policy that allows international students of STEM to live and work in the U.S. for two years longer than peers pursuing other subjects.  Math and computer science programs’ increased popularity among international students suggests, then, that those who leave their home countries to study in the U.S. do so for the employment opportunities they anticipate after graduation.

In terms of American higher education, this shift serves as a guidepost for universities that have encountered difficulty enrolling international student cohorts at a time when global perceptions of the U.S. as a welcoming study destination have taken a hit.  Such institutions may grow their international populations through increased recruitment efforts for their STEM programs—specifically, math and computer science.  Likewise, the U.S. may affirm its place as the world’s top study destination by redoubling its efforts to open its doors to international students interested in STEM subjects.


JP Deering

Author: JP Deering

Partner Development and Corporate Communications Coordinator JP joined INTO’s partner development team two years ago. Before joining INTO, JP taught English and composition to international students at the University of Kentucky. Now, he manages INTO’s corporate blog and social media, writes about international student mobility trends, policy, and the goings-on at INTO’s university partners in the US, and handles outreach to potential partner universities and corporate engagement at major conferences.

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