Asian Students Favor STEM Fields During US Study Abroad, Though Rates Vary by Country of Origin

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by Andrea Moneton
University science labs today attract more Asian students than humanities and social science classrooms. Image: StFX via Wikimedia Commons.

Asian students in the United States, numbering more than 630,000 in the 2014-15 academic year, have more than doubled their presence on American higher education institutions since 2000. Part I of this two-part series, illustrating the latest Institute of International Education Open Doors Report, highlighted this increase. However, looking at the trends of Asian student arrivals in the United States raises another question: how do these students spend their time at American universities?

The IIE report also included key figures about students’ fields of study once they enroll at US universities, an important measure to understand what the growing number of Asian and other international students accomplish through their academic efforts. The data showed that while language, humanities, and social science programs attracted less than 10% of Asian students between them, 67% of Asian students choose to study in Business and Management or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. With that in mind, however, each country’s students are drawn to the various academic fields at somewhat different rates.

Asian Students in the United States by Field of Study

Indian students, for example, study STEM fields, especially engineering, in vastly higher quantities than other Asian countries, and Indian students studying business come in at just half the Asian average. Nearly 80% of Indian students enroll in university STEM programs, a number consistent since 2010, which has almost certainly contributed to India’s role as a growing technology hub. Indian enrollment in American computer science programs has rapidly climbed 25% in three years, potentially in response to the growing e-commerce sector, which has created a need for computer science professionals. This trend is likely to persist in coming years, given increasing investments by American technology companies in India. 

Students in the US from Asia’s most developed economies, including Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan, are more likely than those from other countries to study social sciences or humanities. Students from Hong Kong have consistently studied social sciences at more than double the average Asian rate since 2010, with around 16% of all students from Hon Kong choosing that field. South Korea and Japan are close behind. As many as 15% of Japanese students also enrolled in Intensive English programs in the US, more than seven times the Asian average and three times Thailand’s rate, the second largest country of origin of students studying Intensive English. By contrast, less than 15% of Japanese students study STEM fields in the US, which is less than the Asian average for engineering alone. This might be a response to Japanese students’ relatively low English levels, as demonstrated by a survey conducted by the Japanese education ministry in February 2015.

Asian students in America are clearly present not only all over the United States, but also in all different fields of study.

Andrea Moneton is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.