The rise of STEM in the U.S.: International education in the age of artificial intelligence

In Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Northeastern University president Dr. Joseph E. Aoun observes that the rise of machine learning will have a profound impact on the jobs people do and the planet they inhabit.  A recent piece in the Economist confirmed this hypothesis in the context of the global finance industry, noting: “Funds run by computers that follow rules set by humans account for 35% of America’s stock market, 60% of institutional equity assets and 60% of trading activity.”

As is evident from the Institute of International Education’s 2019 Open Doors Report, international students are alert to the transformations posed by the rise of technology in industry, and they increasingly seek out majors in math and computer science at the expense of traditional business programs.  

Last academic year, 52% of international students in the U.S. were pursuing degrees or completing Optional Practical Training  in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.  Of all subjects pursued by international students, longitudinal data reveals that math and computer science saw a significant rise among top source countries.  These subjects have over taken business and management, which has declined in popularity over the last four years and now ranks as the third most popular field of study for international students. 

Engineering degrees have been the most popular pursuit of international students in the U.S. since 2015/16.  The rise of the U.S. as a STEM destination for international students, then, is driven by an increase in the popularity of math and computer science degrees over business and management degrees.  Similar shifts are measurable in the United Kingdom, and they point to evolving perceptions in the value of business versus STEM degrees as well as shifts in the availability of business versus math and computer science degrees globally. 

A global phenomenon: Perspectives from China, India, and the U.K.

Of the 203,461 international students studying or completing OPT in math and computer science in 2018/19, nearly three quarters (148,285 total) come from India or China.  Math and computer science only recently became the most pursued field of study among Indian students, surpassing engineering in 2017/18.  Meanwhile, for Chinese students in the U.S., business and management was the most popular field of study until 2017/18.  In 2018/19, a 17.7% increase in the contingent of math and computer students from China, combined with a decline of 7.1% in the number of business and management students, led to a significant shift in Chinese students’ preferred fields of study.

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 Chinese students of business and management.  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. 

Even for South Korea, where the total number of students sent to the U.S. fell last academic year, the number of math and computer science students increased by 13.7%, contributing to a four-year-long increase of 38.1%.  There has been an unprecedented 83% increase in the number of Taiwanese students choosing math and computer science majors in the U.S.

All in all, these trends have driven a 44% increase in the total number of international students who come to the U.S. for math and computer science.  In the same period, the total number of international students of business and management fell by 9%.

The same shift can be measured in the U.K.  Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) reveals that the number of non-European Union (EU) undergraduate international students of math and computer science grew by 20% between 2015/16 and 2017/18, while the number of non-EU postgraduate students of the same subject grew by 16%.  Over the same period, the number of students pursuing business and management studies grew more modestly—by just 2.4% among non-EU undergraduate students and by 13% among non-EU post-graduate students. 

An opportunity, not a threat: Technology and employability

The trends witnessed in the 2019 Open Doors Report indicate that a growing number of international students perceive the value of math and computer science degrees to be greater than that of business and management degrees.  Even in career fields where business degrees have traditionally been necessary to find employment, computing has taken on a growing role. 

Additionally, business administration programs have become increasingly accessible around the world, whether they are replicated in students’ home countries or region, provided online by elite U.S. institutions or heavily promoted by other destination countries.  Certainly, there is still very healthy appetite for U.S. business programs.  However, less replicable math and computer programs, for which U.S. universities invest heavily in labs and advanced technologies, are seeing the most rapid rise in demand.  The U.S. has a massive competitive advantage and lure for global students in these fields. 

Finally, the movement of international students toward math and computer science may be chalked up to students’ considerations of return on investment in terms of employability and long-term career prospects, whether in the United States or further afield.  In addition to other STEM subjects, international students pursuing math and computer science have a greater opportunity to stay in the U.S. to complete OPT for up to three years—compared to just one year of OPT  for non-STEM fields. 

All is not lost for business and the humanities, of course.  As President Aoun asserts, “the dawn of the robot age will be an opportunity, not a threat” for students around the world.  To take full advantage of the increasingly technology-driven society they will inherit, students need solid grounding in areas where machines cannot function, like creative thinking and improvisational problem solving.  Business programs may simply need to expand offerings to account for this growing role of technology. In moments of darkness, one often finds light where they least expect it.  In the case of American higher education, at institutions that have encountered difficulty enrolling international student cohorts, that light may be STEM subjects—specifically, math and computer science.  The U.S. may well affirm its place as the world’s top study destination by redoubling its efforts to open its doors to international students of math, computer science, and other STEM subjects.

Co-Authors: Tim O’Brien, Senior Vice President, New Partner Development; Dana Bukenova, Data and Insights Analyst

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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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