Increased U.S. Financial Support for Foreign PhD Students

By David North on December 29, 2009

Hidden within the pages of a newly released, highly regarded federal report on higher education in the U.S. are these facts: in 2008 there were more new PhDs with temporary visas than ever before, and their degree of reliance on American funding, always high, was higher than in earlier years.

The report thus contradicts the claims of academia that foreign students are a boon to the U.S. economy; more on this below.

The annual survey of new PhDs showed that 15,246 of those whose citizenship is known were in the U.S. on temporary visas (such as student visas), compared to 30,791 who were U.S. citizens or permanent residents (green card holders); a table within the report (number 11) indicated that the number of new PhDs with temporary visas was at an all-time high. (Every year about 5 percent of the new PhDs fill out the government's survey, but refuse to report their citizenship.)

Most PhD candidates secure substantial American funding for their long years of graduate study, but this is much more true for those on temporary visas than citizens and green card holders. The reported primary sources of financial support for the two groups, in 2006 and 2008, are shown below:

Primary source of funding2006 PhDs2008 PhDs
 Citizens/green cardsTemporary visasCitizens/green cardsTemporary visas
U.S. institutions 64.4%82.8%67.3%91.6%
Own resources30.0%15.9%27.3%4.5%
Other (incl. foreign govt's)5.6%1.3%5.4%3.8%

The source for these data, and other information used in this blog, is Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, Summary Report 2007-2008. It is published annually (though the full report was apparently not issued in 2007) by the National Science Foundation and is supported financially by five other major government agencies. The percentages above are calculated from a more detailed set of numbers in Table 22.

The Summary Report is the only regular survey of new PhDs, and it has been published for more than 50 years. My sense, when I was doing research for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation a few years ago on the subject, was that participation in the survey is nearly 100 percent because of institutional pressure on those with new doctorates.

All the data on sources of funding in the Summary Report are drawn from the recipients themselves; the only other regularly issued report on who supports foreign students financially, described below, is based on estimates of funding sources made by university foreign student advisers – a group of people who do not handle most of the moneys used to support the foreign students.

Sadly, the information above – on the heavy reliance of foreign-born PhDs on U.S. financial sources – will be ignored by the press, but every year a lobbying group for the teaching of foreign students – the Institute of International Education in New York City – will announce with great hoopla, as it did last month, that "International students contributed $17.8 billion to the U.S. economy."

The IIE report is called Open Doors and it uses deeply flawed methodology to exaggerate the economic contribution of foreign students to the U.S. economy.

The Open Doors poll of foreign student advisers, IIE's support group, covers both graduate and undergraduate students, a larger population than that of the new doctorates. Its conclusions are seriously skewed for several reasons: 1) it seeks its information on the financing of foreign students from the foreign student advisers, who are second- or third-hand sources; 2) it ignores the basic fact that all American higher education is heavily subsidized by taxpayers and/or endowments, subsidies that are largely invisible to both the foreign students and their advisers, and 3) while virtually all graduating PhDs are willing to report on their own finances, a substantial minority of the foreign student advisers are unwilling to speculate on the question of financial support of the foreign students, and thus the participation rates in the IIE survey are considerably lower than that of the Summary Report.

All of this is covered in more detail in a backgrounder of mine that CIS published last year, "Who Pays? Foreign Students Do Not Help with the Balance of Payments."