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Shift in International Mix

April 17, 2014

The number of applications to U.S. graduate schools from prospective international students climbed by 7 percent this year, but shifts in the countries from which applicants are coming raise questions about the stability of international enrollments.

These were key takeaways from the Council of Graduate Schools’ annual survey of international student applications, which recorded a modest drop in the number of applications from China, the largest country of origin for international graduate students, for the second straight year. After years of double-digit gains, the number of graduate applications from China fell by 3 percent in 2013, and another 1 percent in 2014.

At the same time, applications from the second-largest country of origin, India, increased by 22 percent in 2013 and an even more dramatic 32 percent in 2014.

Chinese nationals make up about 33 percent of all international students in the United States, while Indian nationals are another 18 percent. Rounding out the top five countries of origin, applications from South Korea and Taiwan decreased by 5 and 4 percent, respectively, while applications from Canada were flat.

Other notable figures included a 33 percent increase in applications from Brazil, which is attributable at least in part to the Brazilian government’s massive scholarship program. The survey also includes data for three world regions, Africa, Europe and the Middle East, all of which showed increases in the numbers of graduate applications. All figures for the current year are preliminary and subject to revision in a subsequent report planned for August.

Percent Increases in International Student Applications to U.S. Graduate Schools

  Final
Appli-
cations, 2010-11
Final 
Appli-cations,
2011-12
Final
Appli-
cations, 2012-13
Preliminary Appli-cations, 2013-14
Total 11% 9% 2% 7%
Country of Origin        
China 21 19 -3 -1
India 8 3 22 32
South Korea 2 -1 -15 -5
Taiwan -- -2 -13 -4
Canada -- 7 -5 0
Mexico -- 10 -8 2
Brazil -- 9 25 33
Region of Origin        
Africa -- -3 4 6
Europe -- 7 -2 3
Middle East 16 11 2 7

“The distribution of applications by country of origin… remains a concern,” the CGS report states, noting that the increases in applications from China have historically been more consistent than increases from India.

“In the case of both India and China, what we’re seeing are numbers that are counter to historic trends,” said Debra W. Stewart, CGS’s president.

“If you put India and China together, U.S. graduate schools are doing just fine, but we are in a business where we’re in competition for the best talent around the world,” said Stewart, who argued that increased competition for talent from other countries should provide ample incentive for the U.S. to rewrite its immigration laws and expand opportunities for international students to stay in the U.S. and work after graduation.

In regard to the impact that immigration policies can have on international student flows, it seems that when it comes to Indian students, England’s loss is America’s gain. A report released earlier this month by the Higher Education Funding Council for England shows that the number of new Indian students at English universities has dropped by half since 2010-11, a decline that observers have partially attributed to changes in U.K. immigration policies, including the elimination of post-study work opportunities, and a widespread perception that the government’s drive to reduce immigration has made the U.K. appear less welcoming of international students (see, for example, this BBC article on international students’ perceptions).

The CGS report includes breakdowns by field of study, institutional type (doctoral versus master’s-focused, public versus private), and size of institution in terms of international graduate enrollment. Per the chart below, the overall drop in applications from prospective Chinese students can be attributed to a 7 percent decline in applications to institutions that are not among the 100 largest host universities, whereas the gains from India and Brazil are fueled by big increases in applications to institutions outside the largest 100. (For both India and Brazil, however, institutions of all sizes saw substantial increases.)

Percent Increase in International Applicants in 2013-14 by Country of Origin and Size of International Graduate Enrollment

  All Insti-
tutions

10 Largest Host
Insti-tutions

25 Largest Insti-
tutions
50 Largest Insti-
tutions
100 Largest Insti-
tutions
All Other
Total 7% 16% 11% 9% 7% 6%
Country of Origin            
China -1 9 3 2 0 -7
India 32 25 30 29 30 38
South Korea -5 -5 -5 -5 -5 -8
Taiwan -4 3 -1 -2 -3 -10
Canada 0 12 4 3 1 -9
Mexico 2 2 3 4 4 -4
Brazil 33 24 27 31 31 44
Region of Origin            
Africa 6 -10 4 7 5 8
Europe 3 3 7 6 4 -3
Middle East 7 11 7 7 6 7

The preliminary 7 percent increase in international applications in 2014 represents the ninth consecutive year of growth in interest in U.S. graduate schools (see chart below), and follows a relatively weak year of application growth (2 percent) in 2013. The Council of Graduate Schools plans to release data on final international application numbers, offers of admission and enrollments in two additional reports later this year.

Percent Growth in International Applications to U.S. Graduate Schools

2003-4 -28
2004-5 -5
2005-6 12
2006-7 9
2007-8 6
2008-9 4
2009-10 9
2010-11 11
2011-12 9
2012-13 2
2013-14 7

 

 

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