Displacement of U.S. Students at the Doctoral Degree Level?

By CIS on June 1, 1994

Immigration Review no. 18, 1994

Doctoral degrees earned from American universities by U.S. citizens and non-citizen immigrants have increased slightly over the last decade, but they have not kept up with population growth. According to a recent report of the National Research Council (NRC), the degrees earned by U.S. residents have declined sharply relative to a major influx of foreign doctoral students. 1

From 1982 to 1992, the number of degrees earned by U.S. citizens and non-citizen immigrants2 grew 8.2 percent. This compares with a 10.1 percent growth in the population between the 1980 and 1990 censuses. Does that mean that the proportion of U.S. doctoral degree holders in the United States is dropping? Not necessarily. In fact, the overall number of doctoral degrees awarded by U.S. universities grew by nearly 25 percent — much higher than population growth — when the degrees awarded to foreign students are included (see Table 1).

Table: 1992 US Doctoral Degrees

During the 1982-92 decade, the number of U.S. doctoral degrees earned annually by foreign students in creased from 4,204 to 9,888 — a leap of 135 percent. This increase may also be seen as a jump from 13.5 percent of the total degree awards in 1982 to 25.5 percent in 1992.

Whether these foreign-resident degree earners return to their country or stay here determines to what extent U.S. doctoral degree holders in this country may or may not be declining. The data indicate that a growing number remain after graduation or return here after a few years.

The 1992 NRC survey revealed that about three out of five (58.8%) respondents who had definite post-graduation plans indicated they would stay in the United States. Earlier NRC Summary Reports reflected lower rates of intended stay in the United States among foreign-born respondents to this survey question. In 1972, the rate was 26.5 percent, by 1982 it had increased to 40 percent, and by 1987 it had grown to 52.8 percent. Thus, in addition to the rapidly increasing numbers of foreign students earning doctoral degrees at U.S. universities, the share of those students intending to stay here rather than return to their home country is also growing rapidly.

These intelligent, motivated students might eventually have become U.S. immigrants, even if they had not been educated here, but the growing proportion who remain in the United States indicates that this non-immigrant entry program is being used increasingly as an unintended, albeit legal, avenue to permanent residence.

In 1982, foreign students earned one out of seven (14.1%) of the total U.S. doctoral degrees. By 1992 the comparable share was about one out of four. Americans may take pride that U.S. higher education is popular among students from abroad, but other considerations that should be kept in mind include whether some displacement of U.S. doctoral candidates may be taking place because of lack of space or limited financial assistance and whether attracting the brightest students from third world nations might retard those countries' economic development.

Ethnic Gains and Losses in the Shares of the Degrees

Using the NRC data on doctoral degrees earned by U.S. citizens, the Washington Times reported in January 1994, "Doctorates decline for black men."3 The coverage noted an overall 9.2 percent drop in the number of doctorates received by African Americans over the ten years (the decline is 4.5% when Black, non-citizen immigrants are included, because their number has increased). However, the slippage is gender specific. While African American males received about 20 percent fewer degrees, African American females gained slightly (0.2%). In 1982, African American females earned about one-eighth more doctoral degrees than males. In 1992, that difference had increased to nearly half again the number earned by African American males.

Another news account based on the same data might have been titled "Doctorates Decline for Black and White Men." The NRC statistics indicate that the number of degrees awarded to White male U.S. citizens also declined — 1,249 fewer degrees, or a drop of 8.9 percent. The numbers of degrees earned by White female U.S. citizens, however, rose markedly — up nearly 30 percent. Unlike the data on degrees earned by African Americans, White male citizens still earned over a quarter more doctorates than females.

Instead of the focus in news accounts on changes in gender and ethnic composition of U.S. citizen degree recipients, a more revealing focus would be on the shifting shares between U.S. citizens and non-citizen residents, on the one hand, and foreign students on the other. In 1982, nearly 86 percent of doctoral degrees were earned by U.S. citizens and residents. The comparable share for 1992 was 73.7 percent. During the ten years, degrees earned by foreign students more than doubled (135%) while those earned by citizens and resident aliens increased by only 8.2 percent. Students from Asia led the growth among foreign students with a 253 percent surge — from 1,829 in 1982 to 6,464 ten years later.

Clearly the United States may benefit from educating foreign students whether or not they return home. If they return home — as their visa status requires — and they maintain ties to the United States while assisting their country's development, the potential benefits include goodwill, mutual understanding, expanded trade and cooperation on common concerns such as environmental protection. However, for the majority of the foreign doctorate degree earners who end up as permanent immigrants in the United States, these benefits are lost. The UN Population Fund notes that "Migration draws off the skills and energy of the young, the talented, and the better educated....The loss of skilled professional, technical and business migrants creates skill shortages in key areas, higher costs, and development bottlenecks; Africa, in particular, has lost an estimated one-third of its highly-educated manpower in recent decades."4

The benefit to the United States from those foreign students who stay in this country comes if they work in their highly-skilled professions, provided that there is a need for persons with those skills, and if they do not displace U.S. citizens or residents or, through competition, depress working conditions. Nevertheless, competition may offer benefits as well as negative effects if, for instance, a larger supply of candidates for a university teaching position (or a medical research laboratory) were to improve the quality of instruction and/or hold down escalating costs of higher education (or the costs of pharmaceuticals).

The data available to this study do not establish that there is a fully subscribed graduate school capacity in which otherwise eligible doctoral students are turned away because of the competition (as occurs in medical schools) although this is implicit in the 25 percent growth of degrees awarded over the 1982-92 period. This being the case, the increase in the share of foreign students at the Ph.D. level adversely affects U.S. citizens and resident aliens. In addition, the large number of foreign students in the sciences and engineering may discourage efforts to attract U.S. students, especially minorities, from undertaking these studies. The American Association for the Advancement of Science commented editorially in August 1991 that if the number of foreign students were reduced, it "...could have the welcome effect of encouraging the recruitment of U.S. young people, especially minorities and women, into scientific careers."5

While the number of degrees earned by foreign students has increased by 135 percent over the past ten years, the distribution of the foreign students among the academic disciplines varies greatly. For example, in the physical sciences, the number of foreign students has nearly tripled (192%) over the last ten years and now accounts for 38.7 percent of those degrees. In engineering, the number of foreign student degrees has increased by 37.8 percent, and those students now earn over half (52%) the degrees. In the life sciences, foreign students have more than doubled (155%) and their share of the degrees is 27.6 percent.

The increase of foreign students over the past decade is also large in other areas, even though their share of the degrees earned is smaller. In the social sciences, foreign students have increased by 93.8 percent; in the humanities, the growth has been 75.5 per cent. Only in education has the participation of foreign students declined — by four percent.

Competition for Financial Assistance

related issue concerns the financial assistance available to doctoral students. If all students paid for their educational expenses, rather than having them financed in some form of scholarship or teaching assistantship, the issue would be moot. However, that is not the case. Therefore, the question of which students are qualifying for which forms of assistance is relevant to an evaluation of whether the influx of foreign students is diminishing the resources that otherwise might be available to U.S. citizens and residents. That issue is an area that merits research in its own right.

Dr. Frank Morris, Dean of Graduate Studies at Morgan State University argues that both admissions slots and financial assistance that might be available to African Americans — especially under affirmative action policies designed specifically to redress historical injustice and discrimination against the descendants of slaves — are being dissipated by broadly defined minority recruitment policies which include recent immigrants and foreigners.6

The NRC questionnaire asks graduating doctoral candidates to identify their primary source of financial assistance. Over half of the more than 27,000 total respondents, including 6,781 foreign students, indicated that the university was their primary support; personal resources were primary for an additional 37.5 percent of the students; slightly less than five percent identified the federal government, and 6.7 percent listed other sources. For the foreign students, university funding was the primary source of aid for 73 percent; personal resources for 12 percent, other resources — e.g.,the student's foreign government — were primary for 13.6 percent, and only 1.3 percent cited the U.S. government.

The funding identified by the foreign students as coming from the universities was in various forms, and more than one form could be identified by the respondent. Nearly 65 percent said they received research assistant funds, and over half (53.3%) identified financial aid from a teaching assistanceship. Some other source of university financial aid was listed by 18 percent of the foreign students. Although they received very little U.S. government assistance directly, much of the research assistance funds originate with the federal government. Slightly less than 15 percent of the foreign students indicated that they received any form of foreign governmental support for their studies.

Another issue that cannot be resolved on the basis of the available NRC data is whether the level of the financial assistance that is made available through the university may be so low on a per hour basis that it is not attractive to students who may find alternative employment in the off-campus economy. If that is the case, the increasing number of foreign students obtaining these funds may suppress the need to make the assistantships more remunerative, and thereby attract non-foreign students. On the other hand, it also could have the effect of holding down the rising costs of higher education.


The increased share of U.S. doctoral degrees being earned by students from abroad is the most significant demographic change now under way at the pinnacle of the American educational system. If the overall number of degrees being awarded were not increasing, the displacement effect on United States citizens and immigrants, which may be occurring already, would be profound. As it is, the influx of foreign doctoral degree recipients is expanding much faster than the growth in the total of degrees awarded, so there is necessarily a proportionate loss in the share of degrees earned by the U.S. citizen and non-citizen immigrant student population.

The large and expanding share of U.S. doctoral degrees earned by foreign students means that the United States is increasingly dependent on their continuing availability to fill positions at the highest level of its educational and economic systems. If, for any reason, these highly-trained professionals were either not able to stay in the United States, or chose to apply their education in another country, a significant decline in doctoral degree holders in this country would result. The separate issue of whether the influx of foreign graduate students is displacing native-born citizens and U.S.-resident immigrants also is an important consideration that should be reviewed in terms of access to graduate schools, access to financial assistance, and the effects on the employment market for doctoral degree holders.

Finally, the possible brain-drain effects caused by the increasing number of foreign student U.S. doctoral degree recipients who remain in this country rather than return home merits rethinking. Should all foreign students be required to leave the United States at the end of their study and not return for residence for at least two years, as are foreign students sponsored by the U.S. government? Should the United States limit the number of foreign graduate students? Should public funds made available through the universities be restricted to U.S. citizens and non-citizen resident students? The data presented above do not answer these questions, but they do point to the existence of significant issues that merit careful further examination.

End Notes

1 Summary Report 1992: Doctorate Recipients from United States Universities, National Research Council, Washington, DC, 1993.

2 The term "foreign students" is used throughout to distinguish non-immigrant students from U.S. resident students whether native or foreign born.

3 Washington Times, January 17, 1994, A5

4 United Nations Population Fund annual report, "The State of World Population 1993."

5 Science editorial by John Deutch, Prof. MIT, Vol. 253, No. 5019, August 2, 1991.

6 Morris, Frank L., "The New Slavery: The Denial of Doctoral Opportunities for African Americans by American Research Universities" Urban League Review, Vol. 16 #1, Winter 1993.