American Universities See Decline in Foreigners Earning Science Doctorates

November 29, 2010

The number of doctorates in science and engineering earned by foreign students at American universities shrank last year by 3.5 percent, the first drop in more than five years, the National Science Foundation reported.

The decline came despite an overall increase in the total number of doctorates issued by American universities, up 1.6 percent over 2008 levels, as well as a net increase in the science and engineering fields, up 1.9 percent over 2008, the NSF said in an annual review.

Doctorates earned by science and engineering students holding temporary visas fell to 12,217 in 2009, from 12,686 the year before, a likely reflection of factors that include tougher economic conditions worldwide, an NSF analyst said.

"I would look to the usual suspects" in explaining the reduction, including job-market conditions both overseas and in the United States that might lead students to delay graduation, said the study's author, Mark K. Fiegener, a project officer at the NSF.

The reduction also may have been foreshadowed by data earlier in the decade showing that the enrollment of international students at American graduate schools had slowed or even declined, Mr. Fiegener said. That slowdown was attributed by experts to factors that included the sagging economy, increasing competition from higher-quality universities abroad, and restrictions on the issuance of U.S. visas.

Controversy and Competitiveness

Those factors reflect the controversial nature of foreign-student enrollment, especially in the sciences. The Obama administration and the Bush administration before it both sought to encourage such enrollment, calling foreign students critical to the future of the United States' technological and economic competitiveness. Many in Congress have pushed back, however, reflecting voter fears that foreigners would compete for scarce jobs.

The National Academies produced a report in 2005, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," from a study committee that made a series of recommendations to Congress for improving American economic competitiveness, including granting more visas to foreign students in science and engineering. The committee issued a follow-up report this past September complaining that many of its key recommendations remained unaddressed.

The decline in doctorates in 2009 could largely reflect visa-processing problems that slowed graduate-school enrollment several years ago, said Albert H. Teich, director of science and policy programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. If that's the case, Mr. Teich said, doctorate rates among foreigners "probably will" increase again in future years.

But the lack of a guaranteed ability to stay in the country after graduation may continue to deter foreign students, said Susan Traiman, director of education and work-force policy at the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers of large American companies. The group has long called for a policy of granting a green card to every recipient of an advanced degree. "That's clearly not happening," Ms. Traiman said.

The NSF data also showed drops in doctorates in several engineering fields, including electrical engineering, down 10 percent to 1,694, and chemical engineering, down 7 percent to 808. Universities issued a total of 7,634 engineering doctorates in 2009, down 3 percent from the previous year.

The overall increase in all categories of science and engineering doctorates issued in 2009 by American institutions was largely due to growth among women, up 5 percent to 13,593, the NSF reported. Men earned 19,849, a decline of five doctorates from their 2008 total.

The NSF figures also showed that Americans from racial and ethnic minority groups are earning doctorates at a faster pace than white students are, and that the proportion of 2009 doctorate recipients with employment prospects in the coming year was slightly below the level reported in 2008.

Fewer Advanced Degrees for Foreign Nonresidents in 2009
Number of degrees awarded.
  2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 1-year change, 2008-9
Temporary visa holders 11,633 12,848 14,205 15,176 15,257 14,724 -3.5%
Total 42,118 43,381 45,617 48,130 48,763 49,562 +1.6%
Source: National Science Foundation