New PhDs with Temporary Visas Much Less in Debt than U.S. Counterparts

By David North on December 31, 2009

A comprehensive survey of America's more than 15,000 new PhDs indicates that the ones on temporary visas, such as student visas, have much less debt than their U.S. citizen and permanent-resident (i.e., green-card holding) counterparts.

The contrast is remarkable; the new PhDs from abroad (those with the temporary visas) have a cumulative debt of $8,063 at graduation while their counterparts reported a debt level of $22,185. American Blacks with new PhDs were the worst off, with an average debt of $38,586.

This is from the newly released Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, Summary Report 2007-08, a publication of the National Science Foundation that is supported by NSF and five other major government agencies. The great reliance of the overseas PhDs on American sources of funding was covered in a previous blog.

The smaller debt for the foreign PhDs reflects a number of factors, and the relative significance of each of these variables is not covered by the survey. Among the factors: extent of university financial support, family composition, personal frugality, and ability to secure loans. As noted in the earlier blog, very little of the financial support for the overseas PhDs comes from overseas. Whatever the reasons, the PhDs with temporary visas left graduate school in considerably better financial shape than their domestic peers. The numbers, from Table 24 of the report, follow:

 Temporary visasCitizens/green cardsBlackHispanicWhite
Total debt$8,063$22,185$38,586$27,553$21,299
% Debt-free 73.1%42.9%25.6%33.2%43.4%

The Blacks, Hispanics, and Whites noted above are all in the citizen/green card category. The data is based on a survey that covers all new PhDs; the responsive rate is very high and the study, now more than 50 years old, is highly regarded.

Most of those with temporary visas, new PhDs, and "with definite postgraduation commitments" are planning to stay in the U.S., according to the survey. Fully 78.2 percent are in this category, up from 68.6 percent five years earlier.

The new PhDs from a few nations, prosperous ones, do not follow this trend. Of the new PhDs from Saudi Arabia, only 11.5 percent are staying in the U.S. Similarly, relatively small shares of the respondents from Thailand (28.1 percent) and Singapore (43.8 percent) will stay in the U.S. The Japanese are divided 50-50 on the issue, but Japanese getting doctorates in the U.S. are a relatively small number, 255, compared to the huge delegation from China, 4,526.

While there are some overseas PhDs in all disciplines, they are most dominant in the field of engineering. In fact, 57 percent of the 7,862 new holders of PhDs in engineering are here on temporary visas.

In the physical sciences (including physics and mathematics) the percentage of overseas PhDs is 45 percent; in social sciences and psychology it is only 21 percent.

U.S. immigration policy (or non-immigrant policy) is largely in the hands of the universities. When they admit someone to their halls, if the student does not have a criminal record, a temporary visa is virtually automatic – if a bit slower to arrive since 9/11. There are no overall numerical limits, and no country-of-origin ceilings.

Overseas students using the most common of the students visas – the F-1s – can subsequently adjust to immigrant status if they can find a U.S. employer to hire them, as many do. This is often a more complicated, and time-consuming, process for those who have been admitted as exchange scholars on J-1 visas.