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Just The Stats: A Closer Look At STEM Majors

What role does mentorship play in the number of international students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the United States? A reader from the Southeast posed that question to me, specifically asking about the correlation between the number of international professors and international students in the STEM fields. He asked if the dominant ethnic makeup of a department influences the educational attainment of students of that race/ethnicity.

This was a difficult question to answer. There’s plenty of data on international students studying STEM disciplines here in the United States, but the ethnic breakdown of faculty teaching those students is harder to come by.

Temporary residents represent one-third of the science and engineering graduate degrees earned in the United States. Nearly 28 percent of science and engineering doctorates awarded at minority-serving institutions during the 2003-2004 academic year went to international students; for all schools, that number was 43 percent.

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The high representation of international students in doctoral STEM programs is further confirmed by a study released earlier this year by six federal agencies — the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Education, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

In 1974, only 11 percent of doctorate recipients were non-U.S. citizens. That number had risen to 33 percent by 2005. The increase in international student numbers has accounted for virtually all of the growth in doctorate awards. In 2005, life sciences were the most popular discipline for permanent residents, and engineering and physical sciences were the most common among temporary visa holders. Non-U.S. citizens received more than 58 percent of all engineering doctorates, 44.5 percent of physical science and 27.4 of life science doctorates.

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The Institute of International Education reported that there were 96,981 foreign professors on U.S. campuses in the 2005-2006 academic year, an increase of 8.2 percent from the previous year. Twenty percent of all foreign faculty hail from China, followed by Korea at 9.2 percent and India at 9.1 percent.
The majority of international professors teaching in the United States in 2005-2006 taught STEM fields. For example, 23.2 percent of all foreign faculty teach life and biological science courses, 20.2 percent teach health science, 12.1 percent teach physical science and 11.4 percent teach engineering. By comparison, only 2.3 percent of foreign faculty teach math and 3.3 percent teach computer science, according to IIE.

Ironically, although IIE knows at which schools foreign scholars teach and in which disciplines foreign scholars teach, they can’t say how many foreign scholars teach in STEM disciplines at a particular school. Using IIE data, I picked the top 10 U.S. institutions with the largest international student population and surveyed those schools to see how many foreign scholars taught STEM courses.




So, is there a correlation between international faculty and students in STEM programs? Surprisingly, most of the 10 universities with the largest international student populations either did not have or would not release data on which fields their international faculty members teach. 


“As a policy, [New York University] provides faculty and student data in aggregate; however, NYU does not provide disaggregated faculty and student data,” Peter Titelbaum, NYU’s assistant vice provost, wrote in an e-mail.

Officials at the University of Michigan’s Office of Institutional Research and their counterparts at University of Southern California said they do not know how many of their STEM faculty members are foreign-born. Similarly, Rong Jiang, from the University of California, Los Angeles’s institutional research department, said they do not have “relevant data on international professors and students.”

I was, however, able to get the information I needed from Columbia University, the University of Texas at Austin and The Ohio State University. Bucknell University and the University of Indiana-Purdue University Indianapolis made their data available although they are not among the top host institutions for international students.

At Columbia, the percent of international STEM students was almost identical to the percent of international STEM professors, at 12 percent. However, at UIPUI, there were four times as many international professors as international students studying STEM disciplines. The same was true at Ohio State, and Bucknell and UT each had twice as many international professors to students.

With data from just five universities, I obviously can’t validate or disprove the claim that the presence of international STEM professors impacts the STEM degree attainment of international students. It’s an interesting question and one that should be studied more — provided that institutions choose to track such data and make the data available.


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