Foreign students now a majority in computer science grad schools

But foreign undergrad enrollments in computer science are still less than 10%

Editor's note: The Ph.D. and masters degrees are for schools in the U.S. and Canada, not just the U.S. as earlier reported. In the U.S. in 2011-12 academic year, 1,769 Ph.D. degrees were awarded. For masters degrees in computer science, computer engineering, and information science and related fields, it was 9,940. In each case, foreign students represented 49.9% of the total graduates. The CRA reports both the percent of foreign students enrolled in Ph.D. programs and enrollments.

The majority of students in computer science department graduate programs are from overseas, and the percentage is rising, according to the latest data from the Computing Research Association (CRA).

Of all the students enrolled in computer science Ph.D. programs in the 2011-12 academic year, 60% were nonresident aliens, a new high, the CRA said.

U.S. universities granted 1,929 Ph.D. degrees in computer-related disciplines last year. That was also a new high, and it represented an 8.2% increase over 2010-11.

According to the CRA, people from other countries made up 53.8% of those who were awarded master's degrees in computer science from U.S. universities last year. That figure was at 51.8% in 2009-10, and slightly lower, 47.8%, in 2010-11.

But in undergraduate programs, the number of foreign students who graduated with a bachelor's degree represent just a fraction of the overall class. In the 2011-12 academic year, nonresident aliens accounted for just 6.9% of graduates who were awarded bachelor's degrees. In 2010-11, the percentage was 5.8%, and it was 7.6% in 2009-10.

Overall, the CRA said that enrollments in computer science departments have been on the increase for the past five years, and last year grew 30%. The organization called that jump "astonishing."

The CRA in its annual Taulbee Survey reports on enrollment trends in computer science departments at U.S. Ph.D.-granting institutions.

There have been a number of efforts in Congress to create a fast-track to permanent U.S. residency for people from other countries who earn advanced degrees at U.S. schools. President Obama is among those supporting the move, and a comprehensive immigration bill is expected to offer some type of fast-track mechanism.

Abdou Youssef, the chairman of the computer science department at George Washington University in Washington, said the national trends reported by the CRA are consistent with what he has seen in his own department.

Youssef said that as economies overseas improve and the middle class expands in China, India and to some extent South America, enrollments in U.S. graduate schools increase. "They can afford to come... and they are coming in large numbers to master's and Ph.D. programs," he said.

Foreign students once relied heavily on the colleges themselves to fund their educations. But as incomes rise, these students are now paying their own way, said Youssef.

The majority of undergraduate students remain in their own countries. Many countries have fairly strong undergraduate programs, but at the post-graduate level, especially the Ph.D. level, "the educational system in the U.S. remains far superior," said Youssef.

Ph.D. candidates have a research requirement, which means they need to have access to the state-of-art knowledge, skill sets and systems -- a combination the U.S. offers, said Youssef.

Youssef believes U.S. graduate programs will maintain their global edge for the foreseeable future, but he said other countries -- notably Singapore -- are investing heavily in their higher education capabilities.

"Unless we remain competitive ourselves, we stand to lose some of our international population to other countries and universities," said Youssef.

Research funding from the federal government will be key to keeping U.S. colleges and universities competitive. But given the current budget-cutting climate in Washington, there is concern about the availability of such funding. "As long as there is enough funding available, we will remain on top," Youssef said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at  @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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