International student enrollment in graduate science and engineering programs in the US dropped in 2017 after several years of increases. Science and engineering fields saw a 6% decrease in international graduate students from the fall of 2016 to the fall of 2017, and almost all of that decrease was concentrated in two fields: computer science and engineering.
This follows steady increases from 2005 to 2015 and comes at a time when demand for tech workers outstrips supply — and foreign-born students are increasingly filling a gap left by declining numbers of American citizens studying science and technology at the graduate level.
The biggest drop came from Indian students, whose numbers fell by 19% in 2017. Saudi Arabia, Iran and South Korea also sent fewer students in 2017. The figures were released in the 2018 Science and Engineering Indicators report from the National Science Foundation’s governing body, the National Science Board.
“In the U.S., (international students) are tremendously important,” said Geraldine Richmond, a member of the National Science Board and chemistry professor at the University of Oregon. “Over 50% of our graduate students in technical areas are from outside the country.”
Students from India enrolled in all degree programs has seen a drastic drop, with a 17.7 percent drop in students coming to the U.S., going from 117,540 to 96,700. Additionally, there was a 19.2 percent drop in Indian students coming to the U.S. specifically for computer science and engineering programs. In 2016, there were 95,950 in such programs, and only 77,500 in 2017.
Within all other programs, there was a 10.8 percent decline of Indian students, dropping from 21,590 to 19,260. Overall, the 4 percent drop saw 840,160 enrolled foreign students in 2016 to 808,640 students enrolled in 2017, the National Science Board showed.
The data of the NSB analyzed the government’s student visa data in a report last month, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report.
“The U.S. government policy, such as the Trump administration’s announced plans to restrict the ability of international students to work after graduation, could accelerate any negative trends,” the report said.
Concerns about staying in the U.S. after graduation have been rising as the Trump administration increases its scrutiny of H-1B visas, which are work permits that allow foreigners to live and work in the U.S. for a period of time, the publication said.
“We have a research engine that needs to be fueled, and that fuel is really our graduate students,” Richmond said. “So, as we continue to try to attract the best and brightest in our country, we also seek to attract the best and brightest from these other countries.”
Graduate programs also feed, in part, into hubs like Silicon Valley, where more than half of tech workers are foreign-born.
“There is an insatiable demand. There’s more jobs than we can fill with the current slate of talent,” said Michael Morell, a founder of the tech recruiting firm Riveria Partners.
“The way we talk about it internally is, if you are an average or above-average engineer with core skills as a computer scientist, that is probably a negative unemployment rate.”