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ICE Report on Foreign Students

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

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In June, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) released a report on foreign students in the United States, specifically those here on F-1 or M-1 visas. The F-1 visa is for nonimmigrants completing an academic course of study, while the M-1 visa is for nonimmigrants completing a vocational course of study. The “SEVIS by the Numbers” report takes a close look at the demographic information of foreign students in the United States, the schools they are attending, and the geographic distribution of these students. The report had been published quarterly since 2009 but is now being published on a biannual basis. As of May 5, 2017, ICE reports that there are 1,184,735 F-1 and M-1 students in the United States at 8,774 schools. ICE reports that 76 percent of schools enroll less than 50 foreign students at a given time.

Over the past reporting year, the number of foreign students increased by 2 percent since May 2016. This trend is reflected in the foreign share of higher-education enrollment in the United States. The Institute of International Education (IIE) found that 5.2 percent of U.S. higher education enrollees for the 2015-2016 school year were foreign students, up from 4.8 percent the previous year. According to the ICE report, the majority of foreign students enroll in higher education programs. Thirty-three percent of foreign students were enrolled in a bachelor’s program, while 31 percent were enrolled in master’s programs, and 12 percent were enrolled in doctorate programs.

The majority of foreign students—57 percent—were male, although this varied by region of origin. South America, North America, and Europe had the smallest gender gaps, while Australia and the Pacific Islands, Africa, and Asia had the largest gender gaps. Males outnumbered females in all regions except for South America, where they were equal. ICE found that 43 percent of international students enrolled in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) program. This may, in part, help to explain the gap between male and female enrollments. Research from 2015 by U.S. News & World Report and Raytheon found that the disparities between male and female students in the United States with respect to STEM were increasing. Students from Asia, notably India and China, represent large shares of the foreign student population, and males accounted for 58 percent of the students from Asia. As nearly half of foreign students enroll in a STEM program and over half of these students are male, the gender gap in STEM is likely to continue. A report on higher education by the Indian government shows that men tend to dominate in STEM fields at Indian universities, a pattern mirrored here in the United States.

Over the past reporting year, the number of foreign students increased by 2 percent since May 2016.  

Highly educated foreign students, like those with STEM degrees, are in high demand by U.S. employers. The H-1B visa, which allows employers to file petitions for skilled foreign nationals to work in the United States on a temporary basis, has an additional 20,000 visas reserved for those with a master’s or higher degree from a U.S. institution of higher education. Somewhat consistent with trends in H-1B admissions, STEM students from Asia represent 31 percent of all F-1 and M-1 students, and 71 percent of all foreign STEM students. As we have previously written, many foreign students are employed as H-1B workers after graduating. H-1B workers are not barred from eventually applying for a legal permanent residency or a “green card,” while student visa holders are.

In terms of geographic distribution, foreign students are enrolled relatively evenly across the country. Over 27 percent are enrolled at schools in the Northeast, which holds the largest share of foreign students. The South claims over 26 percent of foreign students, while the West has just over 25 percent. The Midwest has the smallest share of foreign students, with about 20 percent. This distribution does not perfectly mirror the distribution of the foreign born population, where the West and South outnumber the Northeast, however the Midwest has the smallest foreign population in both cases.

Although not discussed in this particular report, a previous Department of Homeland Security analysis showed that foreign students overstay their visa at a higher rate than any other temporary visa category; in 2016, 42,493 students overstayed. As a source of undocumented immigration, visa overstays have outnumbered border crossings since 2007. Although overall most visa overstays are by those with business and tourism visas, students represented nearly 7 percent of overstays in 2016. Student visa recipient leaders, China and India, are also among the leading visa overstay nations, although Canada dominates this category with nearly a fifth of all overstays.

In July, it was announced that senior officials at DHS were considering a proposal that would require foreign students to reapply to stay in the United States each year. Officials claim the proposal is a national security measure that would enable closer monitoring of foreign students, possibly in response to the high overstay rates. The proposal is still in the preliminary stages of development and could take more than 18 months to come to fruition, pending regulatory approvals by DHS and the State Department. The proposal would likely make the process much more difficult and costly for foreign students, potentially deterring some from coming to study in the United States. However, until a more formal proposal is laid out, this announcement creates considerable uncertainty for foreign students and U.S. institutions of higher education.