A recent surge in higher education articles is taking a look at the developments and trends in US Masters degrees and programmes. What are the preferences of international students headed to the US in search of top quality academic certifications and better employment prospects? How are local universities responding?

Online courses on the rise

A new report published by the Urban Institute in December 2018 found that online coursework has become a much more substantial part of Masters programmes offered in the US. In fact, more than 40% of the 800,000 Masters degrees awarded in 2017 were part of programmes which were entirely conducted online or were available in either in-person or online format. Online Masters degrees, in particular, seem to be growing at a faster rate compared to US Bachelor’s degrees.

The statistics can be seen as a largely positive trend since online programmes are usually a much more flexible and affordable option for both local and international prospective students, without compromising the quality of the coursework. Nevertheless, the study also concluded that while US postgraduate degrees are becoming more diverse in their offerings, their “average net price for tuition and fees (the amount students pay to the institution minus all grants) increased 79% for full-time Masters students from 1996 to 2016.” It is in the best interest of applicants, then, to carefully consider the return on investment of their diploma. Opting for a pricier programme taught overseas may increase your chances of landing a high-paying job but it could also work against you since the US labour market is extremely competitive.

Read: The Latest Employment Trends for Masters Graduates

At the same time, researchers predict that more low-priced online Masters programmes will be launched by US universities in the near future. Richard Garret, Encoura’s Eduventures Chief Research Officer, used Georgia Institute of Technology (US) as an example – the school set up its prototype USD 7,000 online Masters in Computer Science in 2012 and went on to enrol more than 8,000 students to date. Since then, more top US institutions have established affordable online options on platforms such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity, IBL News explains.

Why many prefer STEM programmes

In the light of the latest talks of decreasing international applications to US schools, STEM-designated Masters programmes overseas are bringing non-US applicants back, Marco De Novellis, editor for BusinessBecause, says. Apparently, more and more institutions successfully manage to secure STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) designation for their quantitative programmes. This is good news for prospective applicants in science and tech-related fields headed to the US since students in STEM-designated courses can apply for a “24-month STEM-extension to their 12-month Optional Practice Training (OPT) period which allows them to work on a student visa.

Most academic and career experts agree that these two additional years of having a secured visa are a definite magnet for foreign students specialising in quantitative disciplines. It also explains why other fields of study may be less popular among non-US students in the country. International career coach Evan Weisenfeld expressed similar thoughts when asked about the employment opportunities of Indian nationals: “Students who choose humanities are only given a year and that allows them to stay and work for a year but if you are a STEM student you get two additional years. So the chances to find jobs in the US are more promising when you have three years [to do that].

Another study that looked at graduate enrolment trends in the US published by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) Board revealed that there has been a steady increase in the representation of minorities in STEM programmes. “First-time enrolment increases among Hispanic and Latino men and women have been remarkable – up 5.6% for two consecutive years,” notes Diverse news magazine which focuses on issues concerning diversity in American higher education. In addition, the majority of first-time graduate students in math, computer sciences, and engineering were internationals.

Read: Is a Masters Worth It?

Changes in the US work visa allocation process

What about the US career prospects for international graduates? Non-US professionals who are headed for US graduate school studies and planning post-graduation career opportunities there should also have a realistic view of their chances of securing a work visa.

Here is one trend to follow. Recent immigration policy changes specify that the order with which the H-1B visas are allocated will be reversed, which could give US Masters degree holders an advantage, experts say. In a nutshell, the H-1B visa allows US employers to temporarily hire foreign nationals in occupations requiring specialised knowledge and a Bachelor's degree or the equivalent of work experience. The selection process is random, which is why it is referred to as a “lottery”, and it is split into two rounds – one round with 65,000 slots and another round with 20,000 slots.

Already, applicants with advanced degrees had an edge because only they were allowed to participate in a lottery for 20,000 visas,” the Washington Post explains. “Then those who did not win moved on to the general lottery for the remaining 65,000 slots. [But with the reversed order of the lotteries], all applicants with Masters first get a shot at the general pool. The new order will decrease the odds for workers who have [only] a Bachelor's degree.

According to representatives of the US immigration services, the change will benefit companies looking to hire high-skilled workers, especially those with top technical qualities. However, others have expressed doubts whether this is the best way to stimulate the employment of the best international candidates.

Although the H-1B regulations favour advanced degree holders, the process is competitive. The number of H-1B petitions received during the filing period in 2018 has topped 190,000 for 85,000 visa slots available. The local labour market is also saturated, with more than 900,000 H-1B visa holders currently working in the US.

Read: In Pursuit of the Post-Study Work Visa

However, an advantageous circumstance to international students is the fact that most Masters programmes in the US take two years to complete. This enables international students to gain insight into the market and plan their post-graduation career accordingly. Moreover, with US universities well represented in major international rankings, US graduates can make the world their workplace, be it with American or international companies, while making the most of their studies in the US.

If your dream is to gain a US graduate school degree, explore all the aspects of your journey well in advance. Do your best to prepare a convincing application package and be open to the opportunities that will be revealed to you.