Business Is a Big Draw for International Students in the U.S.

Previous research has shown that international students at American colleges and universities tend to be concentrated in specific areas, such as business and engineering. Now a new report from the Brookings Institution goes deeper in telling us who these students are, which cities they are coming from, and where they end up staying.

Nearly one in three international undergraduate students comes to the United States to study business, management, or marketing, according to the Brookings researchers, who looked at more than a million F-1 visas from 2008 to 2012.

And it’s not just the undergraduates. Close to 30 percent of all master’s-degree students who came to the United States during that time studied business.

Much of the research on foreign students at American colleges has focused primarily on broad national trends or narrowly on individual campuses. Neil G. Ruiz, who conducted the study at the Brookings Institution, says the new data can be important for local leaders to know the student resources in their communities.

“Foreign students are potentially your high-skilled workers or are your future economic ambassadors that can bridge the economies of their hometowns abroad and their newly adopted hometowns of their schools,” he wrote in an email. Because they know the language here and at home, they are able to help with increasing trade, foreign investment, and sharing knowledge, Mr. Ruiz explained.

For higher-education leaders, the new data provide a deeper understanding of where students are located and what they are interested in studying. That could aid recruiting efforts or with opening up campuses abroad.

The data also highlight some interesting trends. For example, two-thirds of all international students in the United States enrolled in business programs or science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields. That compares to 48 percent of all domestic students who enrolled in those fields.

The top source cities for business students during the five-year period were Beijing, which sent 15,382 students, and Seoul, South Korea, which sent 12,509.

Rahul Choudaha, chief knowledge officer and senior director of strategic development at World Education Services, a nonprofit international-education research company, said students from China and South Korea come to the United States to study business as it’s seen as valuable in their home countries’ competitive job markets. Those students are looking for an educational experience abroad, which tends to be associated with prestige, he said.

Engineering was especially popular with international doctoral students—more than a quarter of them were enrolled in that discipline. The top source city for foreign students in the STEM fields, Hyderabad, India, sent nearly 9,000 students to the United States seeking engineering degrees—a figure topped only by the number studying computer and information sciences. Of all students coming from Hyderabad, more than nine out of 10 were studying for a master’s degree.

Much of that preference for engineering and other STEM-related majors is connected to factors like the student’s sociocultural and economic level, said Mr. Choudaha. But, over all, he said, Indian students are interested in finding pathways to the information-technology industry in the United States.

“Indian students are consolidated in master’s degrees rather than bachelor’s degrees because there is a huge supply of undergraduate engineering students who find jobs in IT, and they try to give their career a major upgrade by coming to the U.S.,” he said.

Some regions are particularly attractive to certain students. Eighty percent of international students in the area of Beaumont-Port Arthur, Tex., studied a STEM field—and most of them (57 percent) hail from India. A majority of those students attended Lamar University. “We have a lot of oil refineries and oil-industry businesses in the area,” said Larry Acker, a spokesman for the university. “So the engineering students are in demand.”

But while students are studying in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, the region is the third worst over all among the metro areas when it comes to students’ staying after graduation. Only Erie, Pa., and Binghamton, N.Y., saw a greater percentage of international students leave the area upon graduation.

Although federal law makes it difficult for international students to remain in the United States permanently, it does permit graduates to stay up to two years after they complete their degrees, and the Brookings study tracked that data. Perhaps not surprisingly, the New York metropolitan area had the nation’s largest percentage of students staying, with 75 percent of graduates working for a local New York employer.

But the second highest was Honolulu, thanks to its hospitality schools. Students stay to work in the area’s large hotels or travel companies. Seattle, with slightly less pleasant weather, was third in keeping its international students in the area. Many stayed and worked in the software or information-technology fields, according to the Brookings study.

Other tidbits of interest: While STEM and business majors accounted for two-thirds of international students, others came to the United States to study the arts or other creative fields. Seoul topped the list for sending students to study visual and performing arts, with 4,358 students. The city also ranked first for students studying theology in the United States, with 4,100.

And some students come to study in programs that are not widely available in their own countries. More than 6,300 students studied homeland security. Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and Hangzhou, China, were the top two source cities for those students.

Correction (8/29/2014, 11:21 a.m.): This post originally misstated the name of a university in the area of Beaumont-Port Arthur, Tex. It is Lamar University, not Lamont. The post has been updated to reflect this correction.

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