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Interest in STEM Fuels Growth in Number of International Students in U.S.

Engineering was the most popular field among international students in 2015-2016, a new report shows.

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For the first time ever, U.S. colleges, universities and employers hosted more than a million international students in a single academic year, according to a report released today.

In 2015-2016, there were more than 1 million international students in the U.S. pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees, nondegree studies, such as intensive English programs, and practical training, per the 2016 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, an annual survey from the Institute of International Education in partnership with the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This is an increase of 7.1 percent from the previous year. Over the last decade, the overall number of international students in the U.S. has grown nearly 85 percent.

Despite that growth, international students only make up around 5 percent of all higher education students in the U.S., according to the report.

Students come to the U.S. to study a variety of subjects, as illustrated below. But some of the most popular areas of study are those related to science, technology, engineering and math fields – collectively known as STEM.

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In 2015-2016, more international students were studying and training in engineering fields than in business and management fields. Percentages total more than 100 percent due to rounding.

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More than one-third of all international students in the U.S. in 2015-2016 were studying engineering or math and computer science, the report shows.

In all, 216,932 students were studying and training in engineering, a 10.3 percent increase from the previous year, and 141,651 students in math and computer science fields, a 25.4 percent year-over-year increase.

Engineering overtook business and management, the No. 1 field in 2014-2015, to become the most popular field of study among non-U.S. students.

This growth in engineering was driven, in large part, by a sizable increase in students from India coming to the U.S., says Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president for research and evaluation at IIE. In certain countries and cultures, such as India, "There's a certain premium and importance and prestige attached to the STEM fields as compared with, let's say, the social sciences or the humanities," she says.

These 10 countries sent the most international students to the U.S. in 2015-2016. In all, 42.7 percent of students from China studied STEM subjects, as did 80.1 percent of students from India and 44.7 percent of students from Saudi Arabia.

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The number of Indian students in the U.S. rose 24.9 percent in 2015-2016, to 165,918 students. And a whopping 80.1 percent of the students from India that year studied subjects that IIE classifies as STEM fields – engineering, health professions, math and computer science, and physical and life sciences.

One such student is Karan Syal, a sixth-year doctoral student from Panjab, India, at Arizona State University studying biomedical engineering. His research focuses on antibiotic-resistant bacteria and a new device that will help health care providers identify them more quickly.

He says in some ways, the U.S. feels comparable to India, which he says he's appreciated during his time here. "The countries are very similar in perspectives, people, the kind of cultures we have," he says.

Syal earned his bachelor's and master's from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras. He says he was drawn to the U.S. for doctoral studies in part because of the structure of U.S. Ph.D. programs, which include a greater mix of coursework and research than programs in other countries he was familiar with.

Another country that has, over the last few years, sent a number of STEM-interested students to the U.S. is Brazil. But there was an 18.2 percent decline in the number of international students from Brazil in 2015-2016, mostly because the government-sponsored Brazil Scientific Mobility Program is sending fewer students to the U.S. The scholarship program has over the last several years provided support to thousands of Brazilian STEM students for a year of study and internship abroad.

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An additional factor driving the increase in international STEM students in the U.S. is the 24-month extension of the optional practical training program, which went into effect earlier this year, Bhandari says. OPT allows international students to remain in the U.S. after they complete their studies for real-world training in fields related to their degree.

A total of 147,498 international students participated in OPT in 2015-2016, an increase of 22.6 percent from the previous year.

Though the idea of traveling to the U.S. for education as an international student can seem daunting at first, students like Syal and Junru Ren, a third-year computer engineering major at University of California—San Diego from China, say they have been able to connect with their U.S. campuses and communities.

“I was really worried in terms of the challenges I’d face when I'm a long way from home and also in a total different culture," Ren says. But two-plus years into his degree program, he says his experience at UCSD has been "incredibly great."


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