American grad students are not being forced to disappear

Students have been less likely to attend graduate school because most can land jobs at places like Microsoft with just their bachelor's degree. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

Over the past 20 or so years, the United States has seen a large increase in the number of international students who attend American universities for graduate school in STEM-related fields. Some have argued that this truth displays a bias toward accepting international students over American students and that, consequently, American students are being left behind in the competition for higher-level degrees and better jobs. However, this is not entirely the case. In fact, according to a recent New York Times report, much of the reason that more international students are enrolling for Ph.D.’s than American students is that American students are more able to get American jobs with an undergraduate degree, at least in technology-related fields. Therefore, if graduate schools wish to attract more American students, they must encourage these students to pursue specialized jobs that can be achieved with advanced degrees.

For example, in the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University, 80 percent of undergraduates are United States residents, while 80 percent of the graduate students are from foreign countries such as India, China, Korea, and Turkey. To put this number and the increasing number of international students in perspective, 64 percent of computer science Ph.D. candidates and 68 percent of masters degree candidates in American and Canadian universities were international students, according to a survey from the Computing Research Association. In 1994, however, only 40 percent of those in computer science Ph.D. programs were from abroad.

But contrary to popular belief, the influx in foreign graduate students is not due to a poor job economy, but a booming one. Many American students are able to find technology-related jobs as soon as they leave their undergraduate years. According to Edward D. Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, “U.S. bachelor’s students, if they’re good, can go get a job at Microsoft or Google with a bachelor’s degree.” Financial opportunities at these large technology companies deter American students from seeking a graduate degree, especially if they would have to pay for it on top of their debts and expenses for their undergraduate education.

For many companies, undergraduate degrees are enough for the majority of positions. Zillow Group, for instance, employs those with bachelor’s degrees for the majority of its technical jobs. The jobs that require a graduate degree tend to be more specialized.

Oftentimes, international students choose to attend American graduate programs to be in close proximity to opportunities in the American job market as well. However, it is much more common for international students to do this in a graduate setting as opposed to attending American universities for undergraduate degrees.

The increasing prevalence of foreign graduate students should not be seen as a detriment to Americans seeking industry positions with an undergraduate degree. Rather, the reverse view should be taken; foreign graduate students are increasing in number because Americans are seeking industry positions out of their undergraduate instead of attending graduate school. For graduate schools to increase their attendance of American students, their attempts must begin during the students’ undergraduate careers. Students must be made aware of the graduate possibilities that are available to them. This includes exposing them to research possibilities and specialized jobs that could be available to them with a Ph.D. or master’s degree.

Of course, there is still a significant portion of American students who wish to pursue graduate school, but it would be unfair to say that they are being chased out by international students, especially when the recent travel ban discouraged many foreign students from coming to the United States. More significant is the fact that Americans are simply more able to get jobs right out of their undergraduate schooling. Therefore, we should put more focus on encouraging students to obtain graduate degrees than worrying about foreign students taking positions at American universities and companies.


Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at alexandra.oliveira@uconn.edu.