The Value of International Students in the U.S. After They Graduate

International Students Value to Higher EducationInternational students bring many benefits to the United States when they enroll here.

First, they create diversity on our campuses that exposes many American-born students to nationalities and cultures they have never experienced before. In today’s global economy this experience is essential.

Second, they spend money while they are here, and a lot of it. International students and their families contributed $24 billion to the United States economy, according to a NAFSA analysis of the 2012-13 school year.

Finally, international students usually pay full tuition with no grants or scholarships. In addition to the tuition they pay, these students are also spending on food, retail, housing and transportation among many other things.

However, the benefit that often goes unnoticed is what international students bring to the United States economy after they graduate – their skills.


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International students make up an inordinately high percentage of undergrads in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, often referred to as STEM. Having enough graduates in the STEM fields is vitally important to a nation’s economic growth, and right now there are not enough United States-born graduates prepared to work in the STEM fields.

Jobs in STEM-related fields have increased 30% from 12.8 million in 2000 to 16.8 million in 2013, but only 16% of American high school seniors are proficient in math and even interested in a STEM-related career. Furthermore, of the American-born students who do pursue a college major in a STEM-related field, only half of them go on to work in that field.

In addition, the 21st-century workforce requires an almost entirely new set of skills due to rapid changes in technology and the Internet, and the younger generation needs to be prepared for the challenges it is going to face. STEM-related careers continue to grow rapidly. In fact, STEM skills may be required in as many as 50% of future jobs, according to Brian Kelly, Editor and Chief Content Officer at US News and World Report.

So why is a STEM education important to the United States?

The United States Department of Labor stated: “The STEM fields and those who work in them are critical engines of innovation and growth. While only about five percent of the United States workforce is employed in STEM fields, the STEM workforce accounts for more than fifty percent of the nation’s sustained growth, according to one recent estimate”

Advanced economies need to innovate to continue to grow their GDP, and they will need a continuous supply of scientists and engineers to drive that innovation. STEM education is the pipeline that will provide these future scientists and engineers. Without a steady flow of them, the United States’ ability to compete economically will decline.


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How is the United States doing in terms of educating our students in the STEM fields?

According to most rankings: not as well as we need to be. The World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the world when it comes to the quality of mathematics and science education- and 5th in overall global competitiveness and innovativeness. Moreover, the United States comes in 27th among developed nations in terms of generating college graduates in science or engineering. 

International Students in STEM FieldsThe increase of international students in STEM fields is not just limited to undergrads.

International students studying in the United States accounted for 39% of all PhDs in the STEM fields in 2013, a number that has doubled in the last 30 years. Though international student graduates earned only 11.6% of all doctoral degrees in the United States, foreign students earn 57% of all engineering doctoral degrees, 53% of all computer and information sciences doctoral degrees and 50% of mathematics and statistics doctoral degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.  Furthermore, international doctoral students were significantly more likely than domestic students to major in and graduate from STEM disciplines in the United States.

Of these PhD students in the STEM field, 69% came from China, India, South Korea and Taiwan. These countries are emerging economies that will become bigger challengers to the United States in science and technology in the coming years. Continuing to not only attract these students but also to keep them here is essential to the United States’ economy going forward. 

The value that these international students with STEM backgrounds bring as future entrepreneurs is immeasurable.

For example, immigrant entrepreneurs founded 29% of all new startups in the United States in 2014, nearly twice as much as that of United States-born adults. There are many examples of American companies started by entrepreneurs who were not homegrown. Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and Tesla was born in South Africa. Also, Sergey Brin, the founder of Google was born in Russia. Furthermore, Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay was born in Paris to two Iranian parents. Not to mention Steve Jobs, who was the son of a Syrian immigrant and  co-founded Apple.

So what is the United States doing to help our students to become more competitive in the STEM fields?

In November 2009 President Barack Obama launched the ‘Educate to Innovate’ initiative to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next decade. This campaign includes the efforts not only of the federal Government, but also of leading companies, foundations, non-profits, and science and engineering societies that have come forward to answer the former President’s call for all hands-on-deck.

To date, this nationwide effort has garnered over $700 million in public and private partnerships and hit major milestones in the following priority areas:

  1. Building a CEO-led coalition to leverage the unique capacity of the private sector,
  2. Preparing 100,000 new and effective STEM teachers over the next decade,
  3. Showcasing and bolstering federal investment in STEM, and
  4. Broadening participation to inspire a more diverse STEM talent pool.

Eight years in, the results from the ‘Educate to Innovate’ initiative have been encouraging, but we are still nowhere near where we need to be in producing enough United States-born students to fill all of the STEM-related positions that will need to be filled to keep us competitive in the global economy.

However, international students will continue to provide a vital contribution to the United States economy until the United States can matriculate enough American STEM students at the undergraduate, graduate and PhD levels.

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Patrick McCrystal

Patrick McCrystal

I'm a Business Development Manager of International at EducationDynamics. I enjoy reading about international affairs, reading and writing about marketing, and exploring all the history the city of Philadelphia has to offer. You may contact me directly at

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