Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently cited one reason for overhauling the nation’s immigration system: Many of America’s young scientists these days aren’t American, and they need a way to become integrated into the U.S. economy.
McCain made his case at an April 26, 2013, speech at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce summit titled "Reforming Immigration for a Better America."
"I'll just very briefly mention, if a student graduates from a U.S. college with a science, technology, engineering (or) math degree and has an offer of employment ... they would be eligible to receive a green card to stay in this country" under the bipartisan legislation McCain supports. "I'm sure you are aware that over half of the students in the United States of America that are receiving advanced degrees are not citizens of the United States of America. If they want to stay in this country, and they have a job, then we should be able to accommodate for that. It's obviously important for our economy."
Is McCain correct that "over half" of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students "receiving advanced degrees" aren’t U.S. citizens? We didn’t hear back from McCain’s office, but we were able to track down some data ourselves.
We should begin by pointing out one caveat. The data we found -- statistics compiled by the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics for 2009 -- divide degree earners into citizens and legal permanent residents on the one hand, and temporary residents (foreign nationals) on the other. So the data doesn't speak directly to McCain's formulation, which refers only to "citizens."
However, since McCain referred to degree earners wanting "to stay in this country" -- something that permanent residents, like citizens, wouldn't have to worry about -- it seems reasonable to analyze his comment along the lines described by the NSF data.
We should also note that there is sometimes a debate about what constitutes degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. PolitiFact Florida, for example, looked at whether anthropology is considered a STEM field and rated the claim that it was Half True.
In an effort to most closely mirror McCain’s formulation, we looked at all advanced degrees (masters plus doctorates) in the fields of engineering and the natural sciences (which includes mathematics, but excludes the social sciences, such as anthropology, economics, political science, and sociology).
Using this definition, 37 percent of students earning advanced degrees in 2009 were temporary residents; the rest were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. The percentage of temporary residents is even lower -- 28 percent -- if you include the social sciences, which qualify under the NSF’s "science" category.
Neither figure is over half.
However, because certain subcategories of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (commonly known as STEM) have higher rates of foreign students, McCain would have been on safer ground if he’d phrased his claim more carefully.
Here are some statistics for computer- and electronic-related fields:
• Master’s degrees granted for electrical engineering in 2009: 56 percent temporary residents
• Doctorates granted in electrical engineering in 2009: 66 percent temporary residents
• Doctorates granted in computer science in 2009: 54 percent temporary residents
In general, temporary residents are more dominant in the pool of Ph.D.’s and less dominant in the pool of master’s degree earners:
• Doctorates granted in all engineering fields in 2009: 57 percent temporary residents
• Doctorates granted in industrial engineering in 2009: 66 percent temporary residents
• Doctorates granted in civil engineering in 2009: 61 percent temporary residents
• Doctorates granted in materials engineering in 2009: 57 percent temporary residents
• Doctorates granted in chemical engineering in 2009: 53 percent temporary residents
Meanwhile, the predominance of temporary residents in these fields should remain for a while. Here’s data for current grad students (as of 2009) seeking a master’s or doctorate in STEM fields:
• Graduate students in all engineering fields in 2009: 55 percent
• Graduate students in electrical engineering in 2009: 74 percent
• Graduate students in computer science in 2009: 65 percent
• Graduate students in industrial engineering in 2009: 61 percent
• Graduate students in materials engineering in 2009: 54 percent
• Graduate students in chemical engineering in 2009: 51 percent
Still, it’s important to remember some context: Doctorates in engineering and computer science account for a distinct minority of all graduate degrees in STEM fields. Once you factor in students seeking master’s degrees as well as students in other STEM subjects -- such as medical science, chemistry and physics -- the overall share of foreign students drops well below 50 percent.
McCain said that "over half" of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students "receiving advanced degrees are not citizens of the United States of America." That’s actually incorrect -- the number is no higher than 37 percent. But McCain has a point that temporary residents account for over half of those earning degrees in many economically important fields, such as electrical engineering and computer science. We rate his claim Half True.