Every year, the United States welcomes over one million international students to its colleges and universities. These students face the daunting task of not only completing their studies but also dealing with being miles away from home and learning a new culture. Once they graduate, they also have to evaluate whether they will stay in the U.S. to seek employment.
This article takes a look at the facts and figures that reveal a snapshot of foreign college students in the U.S. who go there to study or work. Get to know foreign students’ countries of origin, popular fields of study, job prospects, and other details. With this information, aspiring international students can get a realistic picture of getting a degree and a job in the U.S. and decide if it is the path they want to pursue.
Foreign College Students Staying and Working in the U.S.: Table of Contents
Foreign college students in the U.S. who come to the country to study typically get an F1 visa. But if they want to stay and work in the U.S., they have three visa options. First, there’s the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program which allows them to be employed under an F1 visa for one year. This visa can be extended for up to two years if the student enrolls in science, technology, any engineering majors, and math or the so-called STEM subjects.
After they graduate, students can apply for an H-1B visa. This is a type of nonimmigrant visa that is issued to people with knowledge in specialized fields such as IT, science, finance, medicine, accounting, architecture, engineering, and mathematics. It allows the holder to stay in the U.S. for a maximum of three years. However, it may be extended to a maximum of six years. But with a cap of 85,000 H-1B visas, it is difficult to get one. One cannot apply for it directly and would need a corporate sponsor to make a petition on their behalf.
The third visa option for foreign college students looking to stay in the U.S. is through a green card, which can be family-based or employment-based green cards. But with the denial rates for employment green cards increasing by 15.5% in the last quarter of 2019, it’s also the most challenging among the free aforementioned visas to get.
Foreign Student Enrollment Dips But Number of OPT Participants Rises
According to independent think tank Pew Research Center, there were about 1.5 million foreign graduates from U.S. colleges and universities who were approved to work under the OPT program from 2008 to 2016. Since the program was first introduced in 2008, participation grew by 400%.
However, a survey by Open Doors revealed a decline in enrollment figures for all international students in the U.S. for 2020 in all academic levels. Enrollment of international undergraduate students declined by 2.4%, while those of graduate students shrunk by 1.3%. For international non-degree students, there was a 5% decrease. This is the third straight year that international student enrollment suffered from decreasing numbers.
Analysts say that the decline can be attributed to a number of factors, like the costs of education in other countries, changes to the quality and capacity of universities in students’ home countries, and programs that promote foreign government scholarship. However, educators also acknowledge the role of the “Trump effect” on the decline. Anti-immigrant rhetoric has caused students to worry about their safety and security in the U.S., which in turn made them less interested to stay or work there.
Despite the decline in foreign student enrollment, the number of OPT participants from 2018 to 2019 increased by 9.6%.
Number of Foreign College Students in the U.S. by Country of Origin
From 2004 to 2016, the Pew Research Center found that 74% who studied and worked under OPT were from Asia. Students from Asia largely outnumbered those from other regions like Europe and Latin America both at 8%, and Africa at 5%.
Among students in Asia, 30% are from India, 21% are from China, and 6% are from Korea. This has largely been unchanged in 2018, based on data from the Cato Institute.
However, the Open Doors Fast Facts 2020 Report showed that most foreign college students in the U.S. now come from China. There were 372,532 students from China which made up 34.5% of the international students in the U.S.A in 2020. This was followed by 193,124 students (18%) from India and 49,809 (4.6%) from South Korea.
Source: Open Doors
Number of Foreign College Students in the U.S by Field of Study
By far, the most popular fields of study for OPT participants are within the STEM disciplines, according to the Pew Research Center, 53% of students who worked under OPT from 2004 to 2016 had STEM degrees from a U.S. college or university.
However, 2019 figures reveal that business management degrees are becoming a popular option, too. Based on data from the Open Doors Report, 230,780 students (20.5%) chose to study engineering, while around 203,461 students (19.1%) chose math and computer science. On the other hand, 182,170 (16.2%) students studied business and management. Other popular fields of study include social sciences, physical and life sciences, and fine and applied arts.
Source: Open Doors
Number of Foreign College Students in the U.S. by Degree Type
According to Pew Research, 840,800 or 57% of graduates under the OPT program held master’s degrees. Pew researchers noted a dramatic increase in OPT approvals among master’s degree holders. From 2004 to 2016, it was up by a whopping 337%. In contrast, doctorate approvals increase by 187% while bachelor’s degrees by 115%.
In 2020, foreign college students in the U.S. are opting to study for Ph.D. degrees rather than master’s or bachelor’s degrees. While the Open Doors Report did not have OPT data for participants’ degree types, the report showed that enrollment was the highest at doctorate-granting universities at 786,498 students. This is followed by master’s colleges and universities at 136,127 students. At the bottom three are associate’s colleges at 79,187 students, special focus institutions at 37,551 students, and baccalaureate colleges at 36,133 students.
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International Student Enrollment by Institution Type, 2020
International Student Enrollment by Institution Type, 2020 Doctorate-granting Universities: 786498
International Student Enrollment by Institution Type, 2020 Master's Colleges and Universities: 136217
Master's Colleges and Universities
International Student Enrollment by Institution Type, 2020 Associate's Colleges: 79187
International Student Enrollment by Institution Type, 2020 Special Focus Institutions: 37551
Special Focus Institutions
International Student Enrollment by Institution Type, 2020 Baccalaureate Colleges: 36133
Source: Open Doors
Number of Foreign College Students in the U.S. by College Type and Hosting State
When it comes to where foreign college students in the U.S. are headed, data shows that they favor going to public colleges or universities. Based on Pew Research data, 827,200 students or 56% of foreign graduates under the OPT program attend public colleges or universities. On the other hand, 566,100 (38%) students chose private nonprofit institutions. Only 44,300 (3%) went to private for-profit institutions while 36,800 went to schools not classified into categories by the Carnegie Classification Institutions of Higher Education.
In terms of states hosting the most number of international students, the top spot goes to California (Education.org, 2019). In 2019, the Golden State welcomed 161,693 students and had 1,054 schools with Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) certification. At second place is New York with 124,277 students and 567 SEVP-certified schools. In third place is Texas with 81,893 students and 463 SEVP-certified schools followed by Massachusetts with 71,098 students and 321 SEVP-certified schools.
Who is hiring who after graduation?
With New York, LA, and Massachusetts as the top states that have the most number of international students, it’s no surprise that foreign college students in the U.S. also find work in these states. Pew Center researchers found that students who studied in large metro areas tend to stay there to work. The New York-Newark-Jersey City metro area had the biggest number of foreign graduates under the OPT program at 218,000 graduates. This is followed by the Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim area with 103,600 graduates and the Boston-Cambridge-Newton metro areas with 73,000 OPT graduates.
With the preference for STEM degree holders under the OPT program, it also follows that the companies, industries, and job types for participants tend to be in the tech or scientific fields. For instance, multinational technology company Amazon is the largest employer for OPT graduates based on 2018 data. It hired 2,911 OPT students, 2,395 of which were studying for STEM degrees. Rounding out the top five are Integra, Intel, Google, and Microsoft, which hired about 1,000 OPT students each. Other tech companies within the top 16 of OPT employers were industry giants like Facebook, IBM, and Apple. In total the top 100 companies hired 36,726 OPT students.
Meanwhile, the Cato Institute also found that the top industries that sponsor foreign students working in the U.S. to have legal permanent residence in the country are the professional, scientific, and technical services industries (Bier, D., 2020). In 2018, they sponsored 1,387 or 30% of college graduates with F1 student visas. The second top sponsors were companies in the manufacturing industry with 1,074 students (24%) and the third being retail trade with 518 students (11%).
Top Employer Industries Which Sponsor Foreign Students for Permanent Residence, 2020
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Source: Cato Institute
Of the OPT graduate students who were sponsored by employers for permanent residence, 2,082 (45.9%) had computer and mathematical jobs, mainly as software developers. On the other hand, 922 (20.3%) graduate students were in the architecture and engineering professions. The third spot went to business and financial operations with 524 graduate students (11.6%).
OPT vs. H-1B Visa Statistics
From 2004 to 2016, researchers from the Pew Center found out that visa approvals for the OPT program outpaced approval for H-1B visas. During fiscal year 2016 for example, there were 257,000 approvals under the second optional STEM extension. In contrast, there were only 115,000 H1-B approvals for the same period.
Data from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) also show that as of 2019, they received a total of 215,264 authorization receipts. From 2015 to 2019, CIS received a total of 1,050,577 employment authorization receipts. The approval rate for employment authorization under STEM OPT was at 97% in 2019 and remained at this level on average from 2015 to 2019.
On the other hand, data from Labor Condition Applications (LCAs) filed by U.S. employers show that this 2020, there are 597,700 certified LCAs, which is a requirement for an H-1B visa to be approved by the CIS. On the other hand, there were 5,847 denied LCAs and 41,215 LCAs that were certified-withdrawn. Certified withdrawn means that initially, the application was approved but was then withdrawn by the employer.
Based on data gathered by Pew Research Center, visa applications for H-1B visas exceeded the visa cap from 2014 to 2018. For H-1B visas issued from 2001 to 2015, 892,814 or 50.5% were awarded to Indian nationals. This was followed by Chinese nationals at 171,577 approvals or 9.7% and Canadian nationals at 66,562 visas or 3.8%.
Source: Pew Research Center, 2018
Pros and Cons of the OPT Program
Recently, there have been calls from U.S. lawmakers to suspend the OPT program as the U.S. economy tries to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. This has revived scrutiny by the academe and industries into the pros and cons of the OPT program.
“OPT steals jobs from Americans”
Administration officials under President Donald Trump cited as the reason for temporarily restricting the OPT programs the 26% unemployment rate among 18- to 24-year old Americans. The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers (Washtech) has even filed a lawsuit alleging that American jobseekers face unfair competition from OPT students. The Center for Immigration Studies, in an amicus brief, supported WashTech, stating that the OPT program is essentially a foreign worker program that subsidizes foreign nationals to the detriment of American college graduates. This is because foreign students working in the U.S. under the program and their employers are not required to pay taxes for Medicare and Social Security.
“OPT contributes to the U.S. economy”
On the other hand, those who are for maintaining the OPT program say that they support the economy and generate jobs. According to data from NAFSA, the more than one million international students who studied at U.S. colleges and universities from 2018 to 2019 contributed about $41 billion to the economy. They also found that for every seven international students, there were three jobs created in the U.S. for a total of 458,290 jobs. In addition, the Mercatus Center states that an increase in foreign STEM workers’ wages by 1% leads to an increase in native workers’ wages by 7 to 8%.
Possible Student Visa Policies Under the Biden Administration
President-Elect Joe Biden has vowed to build a “just and humane” immigration system. As such, education analysts are optimistic that policies under Biden will be more friendly towards international students in the U.S.
Within his first 100 days as president, Biden has promised to rescind the travel bans or the so-called Muslim bans that restrict travelers from mostly Muslim-major countries from entering the U.S. He has vowed to increase the number of visas for permanent, work-based immigration depending on the state of the labor market or the demands of domestic employers. He will exempt doctorate degree holders in STEM fields from the visa cap and award them with green cards to avoid losing them out to foreign economies. Biden also wants to reform the temporary visa system by setting up a wage-based allocation process and eliminating the per-country limits for visas.
Snapshots of Foreign College Students in the U.S.
Out of all three main visa options for foreign students in the U.S., the OPT program offers a viable pathway for them to stay and work in the country. This is confirmed by the rising number of students participating in the OPT program over the years and high approval rates in recent years. Out of the more than one million foreign students who come to the U.S., the majority are Asians studying STEM or business degrees. Typically, these students go to a public college or university in California, New York, Texas, or Massachusetts. They then go on to work, in general, for tech companies in computer or mathematical jobs.
The path to permanently residing in the U.S. is not necessarily a straightforward one. One of the difficulties foreign graduates face is getting sponsored by a U.S. employer for an H1-B visa under a visa cap. To add to that, there has been opposition from civic groups against the OPT program for taking away jobs from young Americans. But with President-elect Biden’s promised immigration reforms, the U.S. is set to implement more friendly policies in the hopes of keeping its status as a prime destination for international students.
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