By Connor O’Brien

Key Findings

  • Only 41 percent of international graduates of bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degree programs in the United States remain in the country long-term.
  • The retention rate is lowest for bachelor’s degree recipients. Less than one out of five international bachelor’s degree recipients ultimately stays in the U.S.
  • Retention rates are higher for those finishing graduate degree programs. Half of master’s degree recipients stay in the country, along with three-quarters of PhD recipients.
  • More than 1.1 million foreign students graduating from American universities between 2012 and 2020 had moved away by 2021.
  • International student retention is highest on the West Coast and lowest in the Northeast.

The U.S. loses a large—and growing—number of international graduates.

American universities graduate approximately 250,000 international students each year between bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs. Yet most of these students do not remain in the United States long-term, in part due to scarce visas available for skilled workers.

Between undergraduate and graduate degree programs, only 41 percent of international students graduating from American universities between 2012 and 2020 still lived in the country as of 2021, according to an analysis of the National Survey of College Graduates.

More than four out of every five foreign-born bachelor’s degree recipients ultimately move away after graduation. Only 17 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients stay. Half of master’s degree recipients and one-quarter of PhD recipients also leave.

The number of international students graduating from American universities but leaving to work in other countries is also growing, thanks in part to the static number of H-1B visas and employment-based green cards available each year. In recent graduating classes, the number of international graduates the United States fails to retain has exceeded 150,000. In other words, a growing population of international students is competing for a fixed number of opportunities to stay; as a result, more graduates are simply leaving.

Just among international students who graduated between 2012 and 2020, American universities trained more than 1.1 million students who later left the country.

The West Coast retains more graduates than the rest of the country.

Retention of international graduates varies greatly by region. While state-level retention data is not available, data at the Census division level suggests the West Coast is far more effective at retaining international graduates—and attracting foreign graduates from other regions—than the rest of the country. 

The ratio of foreign graduates who live in each region compared to the number of international students each region graduates is one useful proxy for retention. On this measure, the West Coast leads the way: for every 100 foreign-born graduates, 83 international graduates now reside there. This is not a direct measure of retention per se; rather, it measures the combined effects of the region retaining its own foreign graduates and attracting foreign graduates from other parts of the country. 

In other parts of the country, this proxy for retention is far lower. In New England, there are just 24 recent foreign-born graduates residing in the region for every 100 international students who graduate from its schools. In the Mid-Atlantic Census division encompassing New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, there are just 28 recent foreign graduates living there for every 100 coming out of the region’s colleges and universities. 

The West Coast is a particularly strong magnet for foreign PhD graduates, likely reflecting its strength in the technology sector. For every 100 foreign-born PhD graduates of West Coast universities, more than 200 recent foreign-born doctoral recipients live in the region. In other words, the West Coast is highly effective at both retaining its newly minted, foreign-born PhDs, and in luring graduates away from other parts of the country.

The United States’ failure to retain so many graduates is a drag on regional economies. More than 30,000 foreign students graduate from programs in New York each year, yet the broader region retains at most about one-quarter of its international graduates. Over time, this adds up to major outflows of skilled workers. Between 2012 and 2020, the Mid-Atlantic lost more than 100,000 bachelor’s degree recipients, 180,000 master’s degree recipients, and 10,000 foreign-born PhDs, either to other regions of the country or to international out-migration. Notably, these figures are only a lower-bound estimate of the number of lost graduates from the region’s own schools, as some recent foreign graduates of schools in other regions now live in the Mid-Atlantic, too.

The United States needs new visa pathways to retain foreign-born university graduates.

The number of international students attending American universities is growing, but visa pathways for skilled workers and entrepreneurs are not. If this continues, the U.S. will continue to lose a growing number of talented graduates educated at its own universities; many will instead contribute their human capital earned in the United States to other countries, including competitor nations such as China

Not all foreign graduates would remain in the U.S. if given the chance, of course, but our small and bureaucratic skilled immigration system is likely a deterrent to many. In fact, a survey of prospective international students from 2021 finds that 73 percent would stay in the U.S. if a visa were readily available to them, far higher than retention rates found in this analysis.

There are a number of promising ideas to increase America’s retention of skilled international students while contributing to goals like regional economic development or revitalizing domestic manufacturing. A Heartland Visa, for example, would allow communities experiencing economic and demographic decline to opt-in to additional skilled immigration, favoring those who graduated from nearby universities. For those regions of the U.S. failing to retain most of their own international graduates, a Heartland Visa program would enable many more to stay, infusing such communities with new skilled labor and potential high-impact entrepreneurs. 

EIG’s proposed Chipmaker’s Visa would enable semiconductor firms investing in the United States to better attract and retain scientific or technical talent. While a majority of engineering PhD recipients study in the United States on temporary visas, many struggle to obtain long-term residency, particularly if they hail from a country with a long employment-based visa backlog. The Chipmaker’s Visa would provide a smooth pathway to permanent residency for key workers critical to the semiconductor supply chain. 

Skilled immigration pathways into the United States are simply too small relative to the size of our economy. The number of H-1B visas available to the private sector has not grown since 2006, for example, despite the national economy growing more than 30 percent since. Similarly, the 140,000 employment-based green cards available each year has not been adjusted since 1990. In a typical year, employment-based green cards account for fewer than one-fifth of all green cards issued. 

If the U.S. is to take full advantage of the demand to study at domestic universities, skilled workers—and talented new graduates in particular—need more pathways to stay and work in the United States.

Appendix: A note on the data

The data for this piece comes from the 2021 National Survey of College Graduates (NSCG) and the National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). 

The NSCG periodically surveys the U.S. population with a college degree. The survey collects information on respondents’ degree level, graduation year, place of degree, citizenship status, visa status at their time of arrival to the United States, and current Census division of residence. This analysis is limited to foreign-born graduates who completed their most recent degrees between 2012 and 2020 in the United States and who originally came to the U.S. on a temporary student visa. The survey collects respondents’ locations as of 2021. Notably, it only counts those graduates still living in the U.S. 

Graduation data comes from IPEDS, which tracks degree completions by degree level for nonresident alien students. The national retention rate is therefore calculated by dividing the number of international graduates (as defined above) still residing in the country in 2021 by the total number of nonresident students graduating from American schools between 2012 and 2020.

Skilled Immigration

Related Posts