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ApplyInsights: More Than Half of International Students in the US Studying or Working in STEM

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Open Doors 2020 is finally here! As always, the annual publication from the Institute of International Education (IIE) is full of essential statistics on international students studying in the United States, as well as American students studying abroad. 

Back in November, I discussed the initial findings released by IIE for 2020. Now that the full report has arrived, I’ll be diving deeper into some of the most interesting trends it surfaces. Today’s article focuses on the importance of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs to international education in the US. 

International Students in the US by Field of Study

The chart below shows the breakdown of the international student population in the US by general field of study for the 2019/20 academic year:Circle graph showing the distribution of international students in the US by general field of study in academic year 2019/20.Remarkably, more than half of all international students in the US in 2019/20 were enrolled or working in STEM fields.1 By comparison, the number of international students studying or working in business and management and the number of international students studying or working in the arts, social sciences, and humanities were roughly equal, at around 16%. 

STEM is a key focus of the US government in enabling international education. While the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program allows most international students to work for up to 12 months during or after completing their studies, STEM graduates can apply for an additional 24-month extension. But even omitting OPT, STEM programs still account for 46% of international students in the US. 

Major Source Countries for STEM Students

Open Doors 2020 includes a breakdown of the top 25 source countries for international students in the US by field of study. In terms of raw numbers, the biggest players in US international education (China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia) are also the largest suppliers of STEM students. But some smaller contributors send much larger STEM contingents as a percentage of all students. 

Let’s look at which countries are sending the largest proportions of STEM students.


More than 80% of Iranian students in the US in 2019/20 were enrolled or working in STEM, with over 50% of the total enrolled or working in engineering. Both rates were the highest among the top 25. 

Iran is an outlier in another key area, as well. It had the highest proportion of graduate students of any source country in that year,2 at 74.4%. This aligns with a larger trend: 62.1% of international graduate students in the US were enrolled in STEM in 2019/20, compared to 38.9% of undergraduates.


India was next, with more than 150,000 of its 193,124 students in the US, or 78.3%, enrolled or working in STEM in 2019/20. This is the second-largest international student STEM contingent, behind China. 

34.7% of Indian students were enrolled or working in math and computer science, the highest rate among the top 25. Over 40% of Indian students in the US were enrolled in OPT, the largest proportion among all source countries. Like graduate studies, OPT is weighted towards STEM, helped by the extension eligibility. More than two-thirds of all OPT students worked in STEM in 2019/20. 


Bangladesh was just behind India, with 78.2% of students enrolled or working in STEM. Like Iranian students, Bangladeshi students have one of the highest rates of graduate study in the US, at 65.5% in 2019/20. Engineering was the top draw for Bangladeshi students, with 41.1% studying or working in the field. This was the third-largest percentage among the top 25. 

Just under 70% of students from Nepal studied or worked in STEM in 2019/20. Math and computer science were the top draws, with more than a quarter of Nepali students enrolled in or working in those fields. Additionally, 20.2% of Nepalese students in the US studied or worked in physical or life sciences, well above the 7.6% average and tops among the top 25 source countries. 

Kuwait rounded out the top five, with just over two-thirds of its students studying or working in STEM. Almost all of those students were in engineering, which accounted for 60% of all Kuwaiti students in the US, the largest percentage among the top 25. 

Kuwait is a designated major non-NATO ally (MNNA) of the United States, and the Kuwait Ministry of Higher Education (MOHE) Scholarship Program funds four-year US bachelor’s degrees for Kuwaitis in fields of focus for the government. These include engineering, graduates of which are in high demand in Kuwait’s dominant petroleum industry. In contrast with the other top markets, Kuwaitis in the US are primarily undergraduates (81.7%). Just 2.2% of Kuwaitis in the US were enrolled in OPT.

Top 10 Major Source Countries for STEM Students

The chart below lists the 10 countries among the top 25 source markets overall with the highest percentage of students enrolled or working in STEM. All but two of the countries listed are located in South Asia or the Middle East, reflecting the desirability of STEM careers in those regions.

Top Source Countries for STEM Programs in the US by Percentage of Students, 2019/20
Source Country % of Students # of Students Overall Rank STEM Rank
Iran 80.1% 9,172 13 8
India 78.3% 151,216 2 2
Bangladesh 78.2% 6,911 17 11
Nepal 69.9% 8,898 12 9
Kuwait 67.6% 5,662 19 12
Nigeria 62.2% 8,560 11 10
Pakistan 54.3% 4,311 22 16
Saudi Arabia 53.8% 16,655 4 4
Malaysia 53.1% 3,669 24 17
Turkey 49.4% 4,684 15 15


In July 2020, when US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued a directive to revoke the visas of international students studying solely online, a coalition of tech companies that included Google, Facebook, and Twitter struck back, urging a federal court to reject the policy.

ICE ultimately rescinded the directive, and the Biden administration represents a sharp break from Trump-era antagonism toward international students. But the strong advocacy against the policy from the nation’s tech leaders reinforces that international students are an essential to the STEM ecosystem in the US—and the economic benefits that ecosystem drives. 

Schools looking to further expand their STEM programs, or ensure the ongoing success of these programs post-pandemic, should consider targeting students in countries like Iran, India, and Bangladesh, which have an established tradition of sending students to the US for these programs.

Published: February 24, 2021

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Meti BasiriMeti Basiri
Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
Meti is driven by the belief that education is a right, not a privilege. He leads the International Recruitment, Partner Relations, and Marketing teams at ApplyBoard, working to make education accessible to people around the world. Meti has been instrumental in building partnerships with 1,500+ educational institutions across Canada, the United, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Working with over 5,000 international recruitment partners, ApplyBoard has assisted over 150,000 students in their study abroad journey. Follow Meti on LinkedIn for more access to ApplyInsights and key industry trends.


1. Figures include undergraduate, graduate, and non-degree programs, as well as students enrolled in the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program. Data courtesy of the Institute of International Education (IIE).

2. Among countries that sent at least 5 students to the US in 2019/20. Iran also sent the highest percentage of graduate students to Canada among major source countries in 2019.


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