This article is published in the May 2006 issue.

Foreigners and Graduate-Level Computer Science in the U.S.

Many science and engineering (S&E) fields in the United States rely heavily on foreign students and workers. Two concerns that have been raised in the press and elsewhere are that improved educational and economic opportunities in other countries might cause both fewer students to choose to study in the US and encourage others to leave after they receive their degrees. While there is new evidence to support these concerns, it is still too early to judge its significance.

Graduate-level CS programs depend on non-US citizens. According to data from the National Science Foundation (NSF), 54 percent of CS doctorate recipients in 2004 held visas. 1 Most of these (95 percent) were temporary visas. Forty-six percent of master’s degrees awarded in 2002 were to temporary residents. 2 Among enrollments, 58 percent of full-time graduate students held temporary visas in 2003, 3 as did over half of those enrolled in doctoral programs in 2004/2005. 4

Most foreigners who receive US doctorates remain in the country: 74 percent of those on temporary visas who graduated with CS PhDs in 2001 were still in the US in 2003. Among all S&E doctorates, 68 percent of the 2001 class was in the US in 2003—compared to a two-year stay rate of 41 percent in 1989. Stay rates for doctorate recipients from China and India, the two countries cited most frequently by those concerned with global competition, are very high. The five-year stay rate for Chinese students with temporary visas who received S&E doctorates in 1998 was 90 percent. It was 86 percent among Indian students. 5

Where are these PhDs employed? Forty-four percent of those who received their CS doctorates in the US and were working in academic institutions in 2003 were born outside the US, including 46 percent of full-time senior faculty and 53 percent of junior faculty. Tracking foreigners in the overall workforce is more difficult. The NSF estimates that in 2003, 30 percent of those in the workforce who had their highest degree in CS were foreign-born, including 46 percent of those with master’s degrees and 57 percent of those with doctorates. 6

There are hints that the foreign share of graduate-level CS education and employment will level off or decline somewhat in coming years.

About 70 percent of full-time, first-time graduate students enrolled in CS were foreigners in 2000 and 2001. By 2003, however, their representation had declined to 52 percent—a drop of one-third since 2001 in numerical terms (to 4,232). As a result, the number of full-time graduate students in CS with temporary visas fell nearly 13 percent between fall 2002 and 2003, to 18,029. This was in contrast to an average annual growth rate of 16 percent over the previous six years. While the number of foreign students on temporary visas studying CS full time in 2003 was still more than twice what it was in 1996, CS was the only large field to see a significant decline between 2002 and 2003: its losses accounted for two-thirds of the drop in temporary visa holders in S&E fields that had declining enrollments. 7

Furthermore, survey results from the Institute of International Education indicate that foreign enrollments in computer and information sciences at all degree levels fell by about one-third between 2003/2004 and 2004/2005, to 38,966. 8 It would seem that most of the losses at the graduate level were among master’s programs as the CRA Taulbee Survey has not yet revealed a drop in numbers among foreigners studying towards a PhD.

Turning to post-graduation employment, it is only recently that there has been evidence that more degree recipients are seeking jobs outside the US. About 15 percent of the 2004 class of CS PhD recipients had definite plans for employment abroad, compared to roughly 9 percent in each year since 1997. Among those with temporary visas, 25 percent of the 2004 class left the US for employment, compared to less than 20 percent in each of the previous four years. 9 In addition, after several years of increases, the one- and two-year stay rates of the most recent S&E doctorates has leveled off or declined slightly. 10

As can be seen, there is some evidence of a drop in the share of foreign students who are coming to study in the US and who stay for employment. Nevertheless, it is still too early to tell whether this will have a significant impact on degree production and employment.


1 NSF, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 2004, NSF 06-308, Project Officer, Susan T. Hill (Arlington, VA, 2006).
2 National Science Board, Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, NSB 06-01 and NSB 06-01A (Arlington, VA: NSF, 2006).
3 NSF, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: Fall 2003, NSF 06-307, Project Officer, Julia Oliver (Arlington, VA, 2006).
4 CRA Taulbee Survey:
5 Finn, M., Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2003 (Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, 2005).
6 National Science Board.
7 NSF, Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering: Fall 2003.
8 Open Doors 2005: Report on International Educational Exchange, Hey-Kyung Koh Chin, ed. (New York: Institute of International Education, 2005).
9 NSF, Science and Engineering Doctorate Awards: 2004.
10 Finn, op. cit.


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Foreigners and Graduate-Level Computer Science in the U.S.