Recent Data on U.S. and Foreign Graduate Students

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Publication date: 
19 September 2005

Graduate physics departments across the country report that foreign students are facing fewer problems due to visa restrictions than two years ago. The departments also report experiencing recent increases in the number of highly-qualified applicants who are US citizens, according to a report from the American Institute of Physics (AIP). Another report, from the National Science Foundation (NSF), found that enrollment by US students in science and engineering graduate programs across the country has turned upward in the last few years, after declining through the 1990s.

AIP Report: "Physics Students from Abroad: Monitoring the Continuing Impact of Visa Problems":

A September 2005 report from AIP's Statistical Research Center indicates that the impact of post-9/11 visa restrictions on physics graduate departments has lessened between the Fall of 2002 and the Fall of 2004. The report suggests that recent declines in the percentage of incoming physics graduate students who are foreign may be largely due to other factors, including an "increase in the number of well-qualified US-citizen candidates."

In early 2003, in the wake of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent tightening of visa restrictions for foreign students, AIP's Statistical Research Center conducted a survey of US graduate physics departments to determine "how many departments had experienced difficulties with already-accepted foreign students gaining entry into this country for the Fall of 2002." Responses from 75 percent of departments indicated that "visa difficulties were widespread," and that approximately 20 percent of all accepted foreign physics graduate students were prevented from starting their studies in the Fall of 2002.

In the Fall of 2004, the Statistical Research Center conducted a follow-up study, and found that the problem of international students being delayed or prevented from entering US physics departments, "which was widespread in the Fall of 2002, had diminished by this past Fall" for all types of physics departments surveyed. However, about half of PhD-granting departments reported accepting one or more foreign students whose entry was delayed or denied due to visa problems, and about 60% of PhD departments reported that "currently enrolled foreign students had experienced problems securing return visas during the previous year."

According to the report, "large, prestigious PhD departments...received just as many applications from non-citizens as they had two years earlier, but actually enrolled 12% fewer," with many respondents commenting that "they reduced the foreign component because there were so many excellent US citizen candidates from which to choose." The report continues, "The second-tier PhD departments actually experienced a substantial upsurge (+23%) in foreign applications compared with 2002, but...still enrolled fewer (-4%) than they had earlier.... The smaller PhD programs saw a substantial 34% drop in applications, but surprisingly admitted many more foreign students (+50%) than they had before." The percentage of non-US citizens among first-year graduate students remained relatively unchanged over this period.

These findings "provide a very mixed picture," the report says. "On the one hand, after several decades of steady growth, the proportion of non-US citizens among physics graduate students seems to be stabilizing or declining a bit, after having peaked at just over 50%. At the same time," it continues, "it is difficult to make a clear connection between this change and the heightened visa barriers that have been put into place in the years following the 9/11 attacks, since the leveling off started before 9/11, and the drop-off has persisted in the latest data despite the reported easing of the visa strictures." Nevertheless, the report adds, "the 2004 data show that a substantial number of foreign candidates continue to be impeded by the heightened stringency in visa regulations."

The entire text of the report (AIP Pub. No. R-440, September 2005), is available at along with other reports from AIP's Statistical Research Center; look under the heading "International."

NSF InfoBrief: "Graduate Enrollment in Science and Engineering Programs Up in 2003, but Declines for First-Time Foreign Students":

An August "InfoBrief" by NSF's Division of Science Resources Statistics examines recent graduate enrollment trends for US and foreign students in all fields of science and engineering. "Graduate enrollment in science and engineering (S&E) programs reached an all-time high of 474,203 students in fall 2003, a gain of 4 percent over S&E enrollment in 2002 and a gain of 9 percent over 1993," it found. The report says that "Graduate enrollment in 2003 grew in all major S&E fields and in all subfields except computer sciences.... Of the fields of study with the largest graduate enrollments (10,000 or more), mechanical engineering led with an 8 percent gain, followed by mathematical sciences and physics, each with 7 percent gains." Graduate enrollment in the physical sciences increased 6.1 percent from 2002 to 2003, to a total of 34,298 students. The field of physics saw 7.3 percent growth, to 12,555 students, while astronomy experienced 9.1 percent growth, to 1,080 students.

According to the report, "The proportion of women among S&E graduate students grew from 36 percent in 1993 to 42 percent in 2003.... In contrast, after reaching a 1993, enrollment of men declined every year from 1993 to 1998" and, although increasing by 4 percent between 2002 and 2003, is "still below the 1993 peak enrollment." The report found that "Over the past decade, enrollment of minority students in graduate S&E programs has grown, whereas enrollment of white students has declined." In 2003, Asian/Pacific Islanders accounted for 10 percent of S&E graduate enrollment, while black students accounted for 7 percent, Hispanics for 6 percent, and American Indians/Alaska Natives accounted for less than 1 percent.

For foreign graduate students with temporary visas, their total number across all S&E fields rose in 2003 to 146,871, but the growth in their numbers slowed between 2002 and 2003, and they declined as a proportion of all S&E graduate students (from 32 to 31 percent).

The complete text of this InfoBrief (NSF 05-317, August 2005), is available at .