Higher Education and the Current State of International Student Enrollment in the U.S.

Last Updated on March 2, 2023

Higher education remains a key driver for high-skilled migration into the U.S.

The U.S. has long been regarded as one of the top destinations for foreign nationals pursuing a postgraduate degree, with nearly 1.1 million international students studying in the country in 2018. For many of these students, a U.S. education is an entry point into the American workforce, and data from The Global Talent Imperative from Envoy INSIGHTS shows that for U.S. employers, international students are also a significant talent opportunity.

International students and the university talent pipeline, explained.

Contributions of international students

Despite making up just 5.2 percent of the total student enrollment at U.S. universities, international students account for a significant share of those who graduate with STEM degrees in important fields such as computer science and engineering. Additionally, international students contributed $39 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, and supported the creation of more than 455,000 jobs International students also contribute to U.S. success by representing a significant share of the talent pool for hard-to-fill positions in STEM and research fields. According to the Pew Research Center, foreign nationals also received 40 percent of all doctorate degrees in STEM-related fields in 2015. Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Tesla CEO Elon Musk—two noteworthy immigrant entrepreneurs—both pursued PhDs at Stanford prior to launching their companies. Within computer science, international students represented a staggering 79% of all graduate students, and over 50% of all doctorate degrees in the field were earned by immigrants in 2015, according to the Pew study.

Concerns over declining student enrollment

Recent studies show that the U.S. could be falling behind in its ability to attract and retain international students. According to data released by the U.S. Department of State, the number of visas issued to international students fell from 677,928 in 2015 to 389,579 in 2018—a 42% decrease. Simultaneously, other countries such as Canada are courting foreign students and graduates with immigration-friendly policies that make it easier to seek employment and—eventually— permanent residency. Findings from Envoy’s 2019 Immigration Trends Report show that the current immigration system could also be hurting international student retention as 19% of employers said that the current H-1B lottery system makes it difficult for them to retain their student populations. Extensions granted to the Optional Practical Training Program (OPT) for STEM students have also allowed students to keep their skills and talent in the U.S. for longer, but there are still thousands of graduates who return home after graduation with the training they received from U.S. universities. Expanding campus recruiting and building a strategic mobility program for existing employees will become crucial for employers as the demand for high-skilled tech jobs increases. 

For a closer look at the role of higher education and to find out how you can better leverage university talent in today’s landscape, download the full Global Talent Imperative report from Envoy INSIGHTS. 

Content in this publication is not intended as legal advice, nor should it be relied on as such. For additional information on the issues discussed, consult an Envoy-retained attorney or another qualified professional.