Educating Iran: Demographics, Massification, and Missed Opportunities

Iran is considered to be among the world’s most dynamic emerging markets for international students
. The country has seen substantial increases in outbound student mobility in recent years. Contributing factors include current demographic trends, high youth unemployment, and structural problems in Iran’s higher education system, especially at the graduate level.

Drivers of Iranian Student Mobility: Demographic Pressure

Iran is caught between diverging demographic trends. Between 1980 and today the population more than doubled. More than 60 percent of Iranians were estimated to be under the age of 30 in 2013, according to the World Bank [2]. In the long term, however, the country faces an aging problem.

The trends are driven, at least in part, by government policy: In the decade after the Islamic Revolution, Iran’s government pursued pro-natal policies that incentivized early marriage and large families [3]. But by the end of the 1980s, it became clear that population growth would overwhelm the social infrastructure of the country. The government then reversed course and started to encourage limits on family size [4]. Birth rates dropped drastically.

Three population pyramids showing the demographic composition of Iran in 1950, 2000, and 2050 [5]

In the face of a potential aging problem, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again reversed course in 2013, publicly calling for larger families to reverse the aging trend. His explicit goal was to boost the country’s population to 150 to 200 million people [6]. UN estimates provide ample reason for skepticism. In its 2015 medium variant projection [7], the organization predicted that Iran’s population would reach a high of 92.2 million in 2050 (up from 79.1 million now), and then decline to 69.6 million by 2100.

For now, however, the country has a young, highly educated population and an under-performing economy. The infusion of large baby boomer cohorts from the 1980s into the labor market meant that, between 1996 and 2006, the working-age population grew by 3.9 percent annually, outpacing the creation of new jobs [8] even at a time when the Iranian economy grew relatively strongly. Matters got even worse in 2006 when the imposition of new international sanctions coincided with the arrival of the largest cohorts of people reaching adulthood in Iran’s history.

Iranian Women: Higher Education, Employment Prospects, and Presence in the U.S.

Over the past decade, almost half of Iran’s student population has been women, many of whom enroll in STEM disciplines. However, women in Iran still face gender discrimination, and those who wish to break out of traditional gender roles may benefit from education abroad. Conservative circles view the high number of female students as a threat to Iran’s male-dominated social order, and some universities have attempted to “de-feminize” education with measures like quotas for female students. In 2012, 33 public universities banned women from programs in 77 academic fields, including engineering, accounting, education, and chemistry, further limiting women’s options for education in a number of disciplines inside Iran. Moreover, unemployment is much more prevalent among young women than men. Youth unemployment for women stood at 41.4 percent in 2014, up from 32.1 percent in 2009. 

Reliable statistics on the male to female ratio of Iranian students in the U.S. are difficult to obtain. The applications World Education Services has received over the past ten years, however, show that more than 60 percent of U.S.-bound Iranian applicants have been female. For Canadian-bound applicants with a stronger focus on immigrant visas, the male to female ratio is about even.

Massification of Iran’s Undergraduate Sector

In just a few decades, Iran has transformed from a society with low participation in tertiary education into an exceptionally highly educated one. Between 1999 and 2015 alone, Iran’s tertiary gross enrollment more than tripled from 19.13 percent to 71.9 percent. This is a higher ratio than in countries like Italy, Japan, or the United Kingdom, and twice as high as the global average. (Tertiary gross enrollment rates as reported by UNESCO [9].)

Educational demands among Iran’s progressively large tertiary-aged cohorts spurred the rapid massification of Iran’s higher education system. In the 1980s, the Iranian government began to promote the development of new higher education institutions, particularly in the private sector. Iran’s Ministry of Higher Education and Research presently lists 51 public universities on its website [10]. In 1977, by comparison, Iran had only 16 universities with a reported number of 154,315 students. The Ministry does not provide information on the number of institutions in the dynamic private sector, but some reports [11] suggest a rapid increase from 50 in 2005 to 354 in 2014, an increase of more than 600 percent in less than 10 years. Available spaces at private distance-learning and part-time universities reportedly increased [12] from 383,000 in 2005 to 1.1 million in 2011. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics [13], the number of students enrolled at the tertiary level increased by 258 percent in the past 15 years – from 1.3 million in 1999 to 4.7 million in 2014.

Reflective of the tremendous growth, Iran has become home to two of the largest mega universities in the world. Iran’s massive Islamic Azad University system enrolls more than 1.7 million students. The country’s second-largest university, Payam-e-Nour University, enrolls an additional 940,000 students. Together, these two institutions alone enroll more students than the entire 2014 tertiary level student population of the country of France (as per UNESCO [9] data).

The massification of Iran’s university sector has, in recent years, led to an imbalance in the country’s higher education sector: The rapid expansion of Iran’s higher education sector concentrated on undergraduate education, while keeping the graduate sector mostly underdeveloped. The shortage of graduate programs is illustrated by the fact that only 6 percent of approximately 900,000 applicants to master’s degree programs and merely 4 percent of 127,000 doctoral applicants reportedly got admitted to a program in 2011 [14].

Meanwhile, the country’s once severe supply crisis at the undergraduate level has, as age cohorts have begun to shrink, given way to a situation where everybody who can afford access to an undergraduate program can get it, especially in the mushrooming private sector [15]. Some universities even experienced a shortage of students in 2016 [16]. Admission to tuition-free public universities remains competitive, but access has improved drastically in the public sector as well – the admission rate has reportedly increased from a mere 12 percent in 2000 to more than 50 percent today.http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=13930201001069 [17], http://www.mehrnews.com/news/1337658/ترکیب-جنسیتی-ورودی-دانشگاهها-استانهای-دارای-بالاترین-آمار-دانشجوی [18], Accessed January 2017.

A Postgraduate Bottleneck

In the U.S., education is generally considered key to enhancing employment prospects and income levels. In Iran, by contrast, an academic degree does not necessarily improve job prospects for graduates. Although the lifting of UN nuclear sanctions in January of 2016 brightened Iran’s economic outlook, and age cohorts reaching adulthood have begun shrinking, Iran’s economy still suffers from chronic unemployment, especially among youth. As per data provided by the World Bank [19], the youth unemployment rate (unemployment among 15 to 24 year-olds) increased from 22 percent in 2007 to 29 percent in 2014.

The rapid expansion of Iran’s higher education sector has contributed to the situation, as the country transformed its higher education sector from one with a chronic shortage of university seats into one with a surfeit of both seats and graduates. One result is a labor market that is oversaturated with degree holders, many of whom remain ill-equipped to meet the demands of the expanding private sector. As economists Djavad Salehi-Isfahani and Daniel Egel have noted [8], Iran’s education system more “resembles … a giant diploma mill than a dynamic sector, training workers in skills needed by the global economy. … [P]roper teaching of English and computer skills is an extra-curricular activity for most students and available only to those whose parents can afford to pay for evening and summer courses in private institutions.”

This lack of employment prospects is a driver of outbound student mobility, especially since it is coupled with a shortage of academic opportunities at the graduate level. Increased enrollment rates in the U.S. during the 2008 recession [20] show that hard economic times can spur interest in education as an alternative to seeking employment in a tough job market. Iranian college and university graduates face the same situation; however, to obtain postgraduate education, they generally have to look outside of the country’s borders.

The climate is such that, as Newsweek magazine noted in 2008 [21], “students want nothing more than to get away the moment they graduate.” For many students, education abroad offers better academic opportunities in a more liberating and empowering environment, as opposed to the stifling circumstances in Iran, where political and bureaucratic red tape limit innovation and upper-level public sector employment is often contingent on good connections to military and clerical circles [22].

Many have been highly motivated to come to the U.S. – despite steep barriers to entering the country. Iran in 2015/16 was not only the 11th leading sender of international students to the United States, accounting for 12,269 students, including 9,534 graduate students, enrolled at U.S. institutions; it also sent 1,891 visiting professors and researchers to this country in the same year (IIE, Open Doors [23]). (For an overview of how U.S. visa policies and U.S.-Iranian political relationships have affected Iranian enrollments in the U.S., see the accompanying article, “Déjà Vu? The Rise and Fall of Iranian Student Enrollments in the U.S. [24]”)

Iranian Students in the U.S.

Over time, the profile of Iranian students in the U.S. has been reflective of developments back home. While the Iranian students that arrived in the big wave of the 1970s were primarily undergraduate students, current students are predominantly enrolled at the graduate level, mirroring the different stages of development in Iran’s higher education system. The percentage of Iranian graduate students now in the U.S. is high compared to other countries and includes a large number of students enrolled in doctoral programs; according to the IIE’s Open Doors [25] data, 78 percent of all 12,269 Iranian students in the U.S. were enrolled at the graduate level. (In 2000/2001, by comparison, that percentage still stood at 55.5 percent.)

The vast majority of Iranian students in the U.S. enroll in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). According to the data provided by the National Science Foundation [26], 93 percent of doctoral degrees awarded to Iranian students between 1991 and 2011 were earned in engineering and science fields. In 2015/16, more than 77 percent of all Iranian students were pursuing degrees in STEM programs, as reported by IIE [27]. Enrollment in engineering programs was particularly high at 54.4 percent, likely the largest percentage among any group of foreign students. By comparison, the percentage of engineering students among Indian enrollees is 36 percent; among Chinese students, it is 18.6 percent. The high number of Iranian engineering students reflects the emphasis that is placed on engineering education in Iran itself, where – according to the World Economic Forum [28] – almost 50 percent of university graduates in 2012 earned a degree in engineering, manufacturing, or construction.

The Future

Iranians have long constituted one of the best-educated immigrant groups in the country. Census data [29] provided by the U.S. government in 2004 indicated that Iranians were the most educated group of 67 ethnic groups surveyed, with more than one in four holding a master’s or doctoral degree. Exceptionally high stay rates [30] after graduation as of 2011 indicate that, given the option, the majority of Iranian Ph.D. students might ideally immigrate to the United States.

The likelihood of such immigration has been dramatically reduced under the new U.S. presidential administration. In January 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order entitled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States [31].” The order bars residents of seven Muslim-majority nations, including Iran, from entering the United States for a limited period, with the potential for more rigorous long-term visa issuance restrictions and vetting procedures. The expectation among many is that Iranian students will see their ability to study, conduct research, and work in the U.S. radically diminished. As The Atlantic [32] reported, “[t]he new policies could… isolate American institutions from major sources of foreign talent.” The magazine goes on to quote Scott Aronson, a University of Texas faculty member who supervises one affected Iranian PhD student: “‘The upshot is that, until further notice, science departments at American universities can no longer recruit Ph.D. students from Iran—a country that … has long been the source of some of our best talent…This will directly affect this year’s recruiting season, which is just now getting underway.’”

It’s unclear as of this writing just how profound the impact on students, academia, and the U.S. higher education sector will be. However, the expected loss of this Iranian human capital will likely be a bad deal for America in more ways than one. It will come at a high price not just for U.S. higher education institutions, but also for the U.S. economy at large. The Institute of International Education estimated [33] that in 2016 alone, Iranian students contributed $386 million to the U.S. economy. In a 2016 paper, “Foreign-Born College Students: How Much Could They Contribute to the US Economy? [34]” economist Giovanni Peri noted that, the costs of visa restrictions that only “allow [International] students to temporarily [rather than permanently] remain in the United States” are steep, and accrue primarily to “the state and metropolitan areas where [these students] study.” “He estimated that economic impact “in terms of lost wages and taxes in state and local economies at “nearly $8.3 billion in wages and $283 million in state taxes” in 2014 alone.

Iranian enrollments in the U.S. have seen peaks and valleys over time, plummeting to a low of 1,660 students, in the 1998/99 academic year. The peak of 12,269 students in 2015/2016 is likely to give way, as Iranian students seek placements in countries that are more welcoming in the near term. (For an overview of how U.S. visa policies and U.S.-Iranian political relationships have affected Iranian enrollments in the U.S., see the accompanying article, “Déjà Vu? The Rise and Fall of Iranian Student Enrollments in the U.S. [24]”)