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Another look at student mobility to the United States

America’s National Science Foundation has joined a growing group of organizations tracking international student mobility to the United States, signalling vested interest and perhaps even concern over the state of international enrolments in the sciences.

The NSF’s general findings give American universities some room for optimism: overall enrolments of undergraduate and graduate degree-seeking students increased by three percent from fall 2008 to fall 2009, a strong result in the face of world-wide economic recession. However, the NSF data also confirm the mixed outlook predicted by IIE’s Open Doors 2009 report, including:  a third year of slowing international enrolment growth rates; a levelling off of new graduate enrolments in contrast to steady undergraduate growth; and decreased enrolments from more than half of the U.S.’s top ten sending countries.

The real value of the NSF study in comparison with Open Doors is the detailed view of enrolments in science and engineering (S&E) fields versus non-S&E fields. Here, the NSF study reported that while overall graduate S&E enrolments increased by three percent, new enrolments fell for the first time by two percent.  Furthermore, although the growth rate of Chinese student enrolments in U.S. S&E programs has increased, Indian student enrolments in these fields decreased by 17 percent. Finally, recent NSF data on PhD completion has indicated that well over half of all American doctorates in science and engineering were awarded to temporary visa holders; any decrease in international student enrolments could spell trouble for these international student-dependent departments.

Many of these findings should be worrisome for U.S. graduate S&E programs. Worldwide competition for top student talent is on the rise, and the US already relies heavily on international student enrolments (especially at the graduate level) to maintain its competitive edge in innovative research and development activities. Understanding and addressing these trends should be a key priority for university leaders and policymakers alike.

National Science Foundation