Over the years, as I’ve done radio call-in shows and public presentations, no single question has come up as frequently: Is the growth in international students in the U.S. coming at the expense of Americans?
In many ways, it’s a natural concern: Legislators have an obligation to fund a public-college education for their residents. Parents worry there will be fewer spaces in university classrooms for their children.
But as a new study examining nearly three decades of enrollment data makes clear, not only are international students not crowding out Americans, their presence leads to an increase in bachelor’s degrees in STEM majors awarded to U.S. students.
The analysis of nationwide enrollment and degree data collected by the U.S. Department of Education between 1990 and 2018 found that increased enrollment of international undergraduates had no significant impact — either positive or negative — on the number of U.S. students enrolled, on average.
However, for every 10 additional bachelor’s degrees, across all majors, awarded to international students, colleges awarded 15 more STEM degrees to American undergraduates, the IPEDS data showed.
The paper was authored by Madeline Zavodny, a professor of economics at the University of North Florida and a research fellow at the National Foundation for American Policy. (NFAP is a nonpartisan think tank that has generally favored a more open immigration policy.)
Zavodny told me that international students don’t displace Americans because U.S. colleges, in general, have plenty of capacity.
“You hear it a lot,” she said of crowding out, “but unless your local university is Harvard, it’s probably not true.”
Colleges were able to increase international enrollments in recent years by expanding their undergraduate student bodies or because of declining numbers of local graduates, as I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago. Our analysis
of state flagships and large public research universities also found that, with few exceptions, international students were not pushing out Americans.
Zavodny’s research did find that a larger population of international students meant that the number of undergraduate degrees awarded to white women increased less. That does not mean the number of degrees awarded to white women declined, Zavodny noted, but that the number of female graduates may have grown even faster without more international classmates. White women enroll in and graduate from college more than other demographic groups.
As for the relationship between international enrollments and U.S. STEM degrees, Zavodny speculates that it may be because colleges devote more resources — such as improved facilities or more faculty hiring — to science and technology fields that appeal to international students, making them more attractive to domestic students as well.
Engineering, mathematics and computer science, and business are the most popular majors for international students.
Zavodny examined 1,234 colleges in the IPEDS database, excluding for-profits, community colleges, and institutions that did not consistently report data across the period studied. Her analysis did not include graduate programs, which enroll disproportionate shares of international students in STEM fields.
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