Foreign Peer Effects and Stem Major Choice

55 Pages Posted: 8 May 2017

See all articles by Massimo Anelli

Massimo Anelli

Bocconi University; CESifo; IZA; Bocconi University - DONDENA - Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics; Fondazione Rodolfo DeBenedetti

Kevin Yang Shih

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Kevin Williams

Occidental College

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Since the 1980s the United States has faced growing disinterest and high attrition from STEM majors. Over the same period, foreign-born enrollment in U.S. higher education has increased steadily. This paper examines whether foreign-born peers affect the likelihood American college students graduate with a STEM major. Using administrative student records from a large public university in California, we exploit idiosyncratic variation in the share of foreign peers across introductory math courses taught by the same professor over time. Results indicate that a 1 standard deviation increase in foreign peers reduces the likelihood native-born students graduate with STEM majors by 3 percentage points – equivalent to 3.7 native students displaced for 9 additional foreign students in an average course. STEM displacement is offset by an increased likelihood of choosing Social Science majors. However, the earnings prospects of displaced students are minimally affected as they appear to be choosing Social Science majors with equally high earning power. We demonstrate that comparative advantage and linguistic dissonance may operate as underlying mechanisms.

Keywords: immigration, peer effects, higher education, college major, STEM

JEL Classification: I21, I23, I28, J21, J24

Suggested Citation

Anelli, Massimo and Shih, Kevin Yang and Williams, Kevin, Foreign Peer Effects and Stem Major Choice. IZA Discussion Paper No. 10743, Available at SSRN:

Massimo Anelli (Contact Author)

Bocconi University ( email )

Via Sarfatti, 25
Milan, MI 20136

CESifo ( email )

Poschinger Str. 5
Munich, DE-81679

Bocconi University - DONDENA - Carlo F. Dondena Centre for Research on Social Dynamics ( email )

Via Roentgen 1
Milan, 20136

Fondazione Rodolfo DeBenedetti ( email )

Via Roentgen 1,
Room 5.C1-11
Milan, Milano 20136


Kevin Yang Shih

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) ( email )

Troy, NY 12180
United States

Kevin Williams

Occidental College ( email )

1600 Campus Road
Los Angeles, CA 90041
United States

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