Career Prospects Driving International Engineering Students to the U.S.

The popularity of engineering degrees among international students in the U.S. has remained consistent and stable over the last four years, never deviating from between 18% and 19% of total enrollment between the 2010/11 and 2013/14 academic years (IIE Open Doors). However, when it comes to place of origin and U.S. region of study, significant disparities exist. These differences can largely be understood in the context of what motivates engineering students to study here. By understanding these drivers, institutions can better inform their international recruiting strategies among this cohort of graduate students.

One can observe a large disparity between sending countries [1] with regards to the proportion of students studying engineering in the U.S. For top sender China, 20% of students are enrolled in engineering programs, compared to 38% of students from India, the second largest overall sender. Additionally, as the figure below illustrates, source country growth patterns vary quite significantly among the top five sending countries of engineering students to the U.S. Given the high proportion of students coming from relatively few source countries, changing patterns could heavily impact future enrollment.

Percentage Change For Total Enrollment From Top Engineering Source Countries [2]

Domestically, international engineering students are heavily concentrated in states and areas with strong STEM economies. At the state level, nearly one third of F & M STEM [3] visa holders study in California, New York, or Texas. At the local level, these students are heavily concentrated in metropolitan areas [4] with a strong STEM employer presence such as San Jose, where 62% of all international students study in STEM fields, engineering most notably. As 45% of international students that remain in the U.S. for Optional Practical Training (OPT) stay in their school’s metropolitan area to work, local employment opportunities clearly influence the student decision-making process on where to attend school and whether or not to remain in the area. Moreover, international students studying STEM fields are able to apply for a 17-month OPT STEM extension, adding to the value proposition of a U.S. education for career-oriented engineering students.

The strong connection between career opportunities and inbound mobility is substantiated by analyzing data from a recent WES research report [5], wherein 38% of prospective engineering students are considered Strivers, students that are academically prepared to study in the U.S. but who have modest financial resources. Strivers are highly motivated by the opportunity to improve their lives and careers through a U.S. degree. Eighty-five percent of Strivers planning to study engineering cited the desire to expand their career and life opportunities as a major driving force for their decision to study abroad. Institutions need to be cognizant of student motivations when developing their outreach strategies, in particular, ones that do not have the advantage of being situated in an attractive location for engineers. Proactive and informed strategies will always help mitigate risk in an uncertain environment.

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