The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the US Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) apparently disagree on the number of international doctoral students in the US.

For example, according to the OECD data, in 2019 there were 88,530 mobile students enrolled in a doctoral program in the US (see line "United States", column "Mobile including homecoming nationals").

However, the SEVIS says (p.5) that:

There were 187,902 F-1 students who sought a doctoral degree in calendar year 2019.

There may be some difference between the definition of "mobile student" and "F-1 student", but I don't think that on its own it explains a difference of 100,000 people.

The most likely explanation I see is that the SEVIS definition of "doctoral program" differs from what the OECD calls "doctoral or equivalent level". In particular, my guess is that the difference might come from the inclusion/exclusion of medical doctorates or professional doctorates. But this is just a guess, and I want to be sure.

My suspicion comes from the information I collected relative to the classification scheme used by the OECD (ISCED), which generally does not seem to consider M.D., J.D., etc., as doctorate level (happy to elaborate on that if it's useful, but I didn't want to post a too long question). However, no idea of what the SEVIS consider as doctorate level, hence my question here.

I asked a similar question on the opendata stackexchange website, in the hope of getting more detailed data from the SEVIS, which would probably answer my bottom-line question, but to no avail. Anyway, my problem is not really about getting data, but about explaining the discrepancy between the two sources.

If someone has any information that could help reconciling the apparently conflicting figures, I'd be interested.


P.S.: I originally asked this question, because a paper I read (NB: not published in a journal, but in a government publication from my country) on international PhD students makes a comparison between countries by relying on the OECD data, except for the US where it takes data from the SEVIS. There's no rationale given for this choice, and unfortunately the authors won't answer when contacting them about that. The paper in question is used as a reference in some academic papers, but I doubt its reliability because of the discrepancy between the two original sources.

But besides the case of these papers, it raised my curiosity as to why the figures would be different between these two sources. It may be useful in the future if I stumble other papers who use data communicated by the SEVIS, to know what we're talking about exactly.

  • 1
    The numbers for bachelor's and master's degrees don't seem to match either. According to SEVIS, the numbers of F-1 students pursuing these degrees in 2019 were 517,556 and 494,099, respectively, while looking up bachelor's/master's or equivalent on the OECD site you linked gives 400,849 and 336,685 mobile students, respectively. The consistently lower numbers reported by OECD makes me suspect that there is more going on than just a disagreement about the definition of "doctoral program".
    – Anyon
    Mar 11 at 20:13
  • @Anyon Thanks, I completely missed that. A part of the answer is probably in the OECD methodology texts, I'll have a look at that. However, without more details about the SEVIS methodology, I'm afraid it may be a bit difficult to completely explain the differences.
    – J-J-J
    Mar 11 at 20:19
  • 1
    OECD's data collection methodology seems to rely on filling up questionnaires - oecd.org/statistics/data-collection/educationandtraining.htm. I am not really sure how and by whom these questionnaires are filled. I do see references in OECD manuals as 'reporting countries', but would need some further checking. USCIS data, being official in nature, is bound to be accurate and I presume it would be a case of simple filtering of - type of visa, type of program and year, from their database.
    – Neb Uzer
    Mar 16 at 5:47
  • @NebUzer Thanks. From what I've found, the data come from the "UOE data collection" system, that is each country reporting to the OECD, to the UNESCO, or to Eurostat. For the US, it is apparently the National Center for Education Statistics, Washington, D.C., which reports to the OECD, if I believe this document from 2014 oecd.org/education/EAG2014_Annex3_SourcesUOEDataCollection.pdf (cont.)
    – J-J-J
    Mar 16 at 18:30
  • (...) I've also found the following, that could explain partly the discrepancy: "OECD international statistics on education tend to overlook the impact of [...] short-term exchange programmes that take place within an academic year and are therefore under the radar" oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/573e058e-en/index.html?itemId=/content/… . But again, without more detailed data or explanation from SEVIS, hard to tell how much it explains the difference between the SEVIS and OECD data.
    – J-J-J
    Mar 16 at 18:33


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