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International Students and Graduates in the United States: 5 Things to Know

For over a century, the United States has led the world in higher education, and today, more than one million international students are enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities. The strength of our higher education system has long been one of America’s greatest competitive advantages, attracting talented individuals from around the globe and benefiting everyone in our country. But that advantage is imperiled now, as our broken immigration system is turning talented international students and graduates away – hurting the U.S. economy and our communities while benefiting countries we compete with economically. Congress must act to protect America’s leadership as the top destination for talented individuals across the globe.

foreign-born students were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities in 2018-2019 school year
Open Doors Data

1| More than 1 million international students study at colleges and universities across the U.S.

For decades, the United States has been the most popular destination for international students across the globe – unfortunately, that appeal has waned in recent years.1

During the 2018-2019 school year, approximately 1,095,299 foreign-born students were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities, representing 5.5% of the total U.S. student population. Students come to the U.S. from roughly 200 different countries, though more than half are from China and India.

International students are generally admitted on student visas like the F visa (for the majority of college, university, high school, and elementary students) and M visa (for those attending vocational programs). These are “nonimmigrant” visas, meaning they do not allow a direct path to permanent residency, which creates significant obstacles for graduates who wish to stay in the U.S. after they graduate.

International students contributed a combined
$41 billion to the economy and supported 458,290 jobs

2| International students and graduates grow the economy and boost jobs

While living in the United States, international students contribute enormously to their local communities, injecting money into the economy and supporting American jobs. In the 2018-2019 school year, international students contributed a combined $41 billion to the economy and supported 458,290 jobs.

California, New York, and Texas are home to the largest numbers of international students overall. Those three states also boast some of the top receiving schools for international students, along with states like Massachusetts, Illinois, Arizona, and Indiana.

International students typically pay full tuition rates, providing valuable revenue that subsidizes the cost of attendance for domestic students. In 2015, international students contributed $9 billion to public universities, 28% of total their total revenue.

And when international graduates stay in the U.S. long-term and work, they create jobs and raise wages for U.S.-born workers.

3| International students and graduates are critical to the STEM workforce and industries of the future

International students and graduates help America compete on the world stage as well. In order to face growing threats from countries like China, the U.S. must lead in the “industries of the future” like artificial intelligence, 5G, biotechnology, and quantum computing. These are fast-growing fields where demand for knowledgeable workers with specialized science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills remains consistently high, especially throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Fortunately, each year hundreds of thousands of international students graduate from U.S. colleges and universities with advanced STEM degrees, providing a valuable pipeline of homegrown, high-skilled talent.2

Approximately half of the international students in the U.S. are enrolled in STEM programs. And even though they make up only 5% of the total student population, international students earned nearly half of all Master’s and Doctor’s STEM degrees awarded in 2018, a total of 250,000 degrees.

The U.S. does not have a post-graduate work visa, and does not offer a specialized pathway to permanent residency for graduates of U.S. schools,
so options to remain and work in the country are limited.

4| Options for international graduates to stay and work in the U.S. are very limited

Despite all this potential, international graduates continue to face significant barriers to contributing their talents here in the U.S. The United States does not have a post-graduate work visa, and does not offer a specialized pathway to permanent residency for graduates of U.S. schools, so options to remain and work in the country are limited.

Optional Practical Training (OPT) allows graduates to gain hands-on, in-country work experience with U.S. employers in their fields of study. More than 300,000 graduates are enrolled in this valuable program; however, OPT is an imperfect bridge to full employment, as the time limitations and lack of pathway to a permanent status create uncertainty for employers and workers alike.3

In order to stay in the U.S. after graduating or completing OPT, international graduates have to qualify for an existing immigration pathway (such as family sponsorship or a humanitarian claim), or find an employer who can sponsor them for a visa. Even then, decades-long backlogs make immediate sponsorship for a green card virtually impossible for most, and the annual cap of H-1B visas is well below the amount needed for all international graduates with job offers.

5| Enrollment rates are falling as competing countries step up recruiting efforts

As coming to and staying in the U.S. gets more difficult for international students, international student enrollment rates have declined, and other countries are working hard to attract this talent to their shores.

In 2015, a decade-long trend of increasing enrollments came to a halt, and the number of new enrollments has fallen each year for the past three years. This decline has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic4 and the accompanying restrictions imposed by the Trump Administration.5

Countries that the U.S. competes with economically are capitalizing on the difficulties facing international students in the U.S. by increasing their recruiting efforts and expanding opportunities for international graduates in hopes of attracting them to their own countries. For example, Canada’s international student population has tripled over the last decade, thanks in part to policies like streamlined pathways to permanent residency that reward in-country education and work experience. `

Solutions to effectively recruit and retain international students and graduates in the United States

The United States has long benefited from being the top destination for international students; unfortunately, our broken and outdated immigration policies, along with fierce competition from other countries, have put our global economic leadership at risk just when the U.S. needs it most.

To address recruiting and retention challenges, Congress must take action such as increasing the annual H-1B cap and establishing dedicated green card and post-graduate work programs for international students and graduates.

For more on this topic, follow Andrew Moriarty on Twitter (@a_moriarty) and read our report on modernizing the high-skilled immigration system.

If you are an international student who wants to get involved in advocating for immigration reform on your campus, check out the University Program.


  1. The continued increase in total enrollment, even as new enrollments have declined, is partly because more graduates are participating in Optional Practical Training (OPT), a program that allows international graduates to remain in the U.S. while earning hands-on work experience in their field of study for up to three years. Because these graduates are still in F-1 student status, they are counted towards the total enrolled population. From 2010-2019, the number of graduates enrolled in OPT grew from 146,075 to 349,049, a 140% increase.
  2. International graduates also fill essential roles in fields like healthcare; the majority of international medical graduates, a critical part of the healthcare workforce who make up a quarter of licensed U.S. doctors, are foreign-born, and tend to serve in high-need areas like rural and low-income communities.
  3. The Trump Administration had considered fully suspending OPT, which would eliminate this bridge completely; hundreds of thousands of international graduates would be forced to depart after finishing their studies, taking their skills and education with them.
  4. Schools across the country are reporting dramatic and challenging drops in international student enrollment for the upcoming academic year; one national group estimates a possible decline of 30%. For example, see stories from George Washington University, Colorado University,Indiana State University, and University of Illinois.
  5. For example, the Trump Administration has banned the issuance of new immigrant and nonimmigrant visas through the end of 2020, and was barring students from remaining in the United States if their schools transitioned to online-only learning, though that policy has since been reversed.
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