Foreign students now a majority in computer science grad schools

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

The majority of students in computer science department graduate programs are from overseas, a percentage that 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% are nonresident aliens, a new high, the CRA said.

Overall, there were 1,929 Ph.D. degrees granted last year, also the highest level ever, an 8.2% increase over 2010-11.

The Ph.D. data covers enrollments. But for master's programs, the CRA reports the number of computer science department graduates. Fforeign students made up 53.8% of those graduates last year. That figure was 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 is just a fraction of the overall class. In the 2011-12 academic year nonresident aliens accounted for just 6.9% of bachelor's degree graduates. In 2010-11, it was 5.8% and in 2009-10 it was 7.6%.

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 enrollments trends in computer science departments at Ph.D.-granting institutions.

There have been a number of efforts in Congress to make it easier for advanced degree graduates to remain in the U.S. by creating a fast-track to permanent residency. 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 The 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, graduate enrollments in the U.S. increase. "They can afford to come, at lot more than used to, 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 education, but as incomes rise these students are now paying their own way, said Youssef. The majority of undergraduate students remain domestic.

Many countries have fairly strong undergraduate programs, but when you get to the graduate-level program, especially a Ph.D., "the educational system in the U.S. remains far superior," said Youssef.

Ph.D. candidates have a research requirement, which means having 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. Key to staying competitive will be the availability of research funding from the federal government.

In the current budget-cutting climate in Washington, research funding is a concern. "As long as there is enough funding available, we will remain on top," he 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 e-mail address is

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