“The Disappearing American Grad Student” in last week’s New York Times explores reasons why foreign students in STEM (and computer science in particular) often outnumber domestic students at the graduate level. It cites New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering as an example case. “At the undergraduate level, 80 percent are United States residents. At the graduate level, the number is reversed: About 80 percent hail from India, China, Korea, Turkey and other foreign countries.” And these numbers aren’t too far off from the national average. CRA Taulbee data show about 64 percent of doctoral candidates and almost 68 percent in master’s programs last year were international students in contrast to only about 9 percent international students at the undergraduate level.
The article analyzes several reasons for the disparity, and uses additional data from the CRA Taulbee Survey to illustrate points, featuring quotes from former CRA Board Member Edward Lazowska and CRA Surveys Chair Stuart Zweben.
Many factors contribute to the gap, but a major one is the booming job market in technology. For the most part, Americans don’t see the need for an advanced degree when there are so many professional opportunities waiting for them. For some, the price is just too high when they have so much student debt already.
“You can believe that U.S. bachelor’s students, if they’re good, can go get a job at Microsoft or Google with a bachelor’s degree,” said Edward D. Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington.
In 1994, only about 40 percent of students who were enrolled in computer science Ph.D. programs were from outside the country, according to the Computing Research Association survey.
As the economy improved, the percentage of Americans in graduate programs dropped. “Going to grad school became less of a priority for so many students,” said Stuart Zweben, co-author of the survey and professor emeritus of computer science and engineering at Ohio State University. “You had to really be interested in research or something special.”
The balance of computer science graduate programs began to tilt toward so-called nonresident aliens in the late 1990s, when well-capitalized dot-coms began scouring for programmers, sometimes encouraging summer interns to drop out of school, Dr. Zweben said.