While Americans have worried about their elementary and high school performance for decades, they could reliably comfort themselves with the knowledge that at least their college education system was second to none. But today, American university leaders fret that other countries are catching up in, among other things, the market for international students, for whom the United States has long been the world’s largest magnet. The numbers seem to bear this out. According to the most recent statistics, the U.S. share of foreign students fell from 24 percent in 2000 to just below 19 percent in 2008. Meanwhile, countries like Australia, Canada, and Japan saw increased market shares from their 2000 levels, though they are still far below the American numbers.
The international distribution of mobile students is clearly changing, reflecting an ever more competitive global higher-education market. But there are many more foreign students in the United States than there were a decade ago — 149,000 more in 2008 than in 2000, a 31 percent increase. What has happened is that there are simply many more of them overall studying outside their home countries. Some 800,000 students ventured abroad in 1975; that number reached 2 million in 2000 and ballooned to 3.3 million in 2008. In other words, the United States has a smaller piece of the pie, but the pie has gotten much, much larger.
And even with its declining share, the United States still commands 9 percentage points more of the market than its nearest competitor, Britain. For international graduate study, American universities are a particularly powerful draw in fields that may directly affect the future competitiveness of a country’s economy: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In disciplines such as computer science and engineering, more than six in 10 doctoral students in American programs come from foreign countries.
But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to worry about. Although applications from international students to American graduate schools have recovered from their steep post-9/11 decline, the number of foreigners earning science and engineering doctorates at U.S. universities recently dropped for the first time in five years. American schools face mounting competition from universities in other countries, and the United States’ less-than-welcoming visa policies may give students from overseas more incentive to go elsewhere. That’s a loss for the United States, given the benefits to both its universities and its economy of attracting the best and brightest from around the world.
As published in Foreign Policy