Foreign Graduate Enrollments Up

Post-9/11 decline finally appears to be reversed, due in large part to big increases from China and India.
November 1, 2006

Following 9/11 and the tightening of visa rules, the number of foreign students coming to the United States for graduate school plunged. But a new report by the Council of Graduate Schools finds that foreign graduate student enrollment has finally started to climb. Most foreign graduate students entering this year came from China and India, which have burgeoning populations of undergraduates to feed into graduate programs.

Despite the encouraging news in today's report, experts in education say that American universities should continue to identify tactics to ensure that the best and brightest of these students continue to choose the United States for graduate school.

“We knew that these numbers would eventually turn around,” said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. Stewart said that the upswing has been driven by efforts to streamline visa policies and by university outreach to aggressively recruit foreigners. She pointed out that a prior study by her council found that 80 percent of universities created policies after 9/11 to boost their pool of international graduates.

For the study, the council surveyed 177 universities and found that total enrollment of international graduate students grew by 1 percent in 2006, a change from the 3 percent decline in the prior year. Slightly more than half of the foreign graduates came from three countries: China, India and South Korea. About 73 percent of foreign students are enrolled in programs for business, engineering, social science, physical sciences and life sciences. Engineering and business showed the largest matriculation gains this year (22 percent and 10 percent, respectively).

Trends in Foreign Graduate Enrollments

  New Enrollment, 2004 -5 New Enrollment, 2005 -6 Total Enrolled, 2004-5 Total Enrolled, 2005 -6
International total 1% 12% -3% 1%
Country of origin        
China 3% 20% -2% -2%
India 3% 32% -4% 8%
South Korea 5% 5% -4% -3%
Middle East 11% -1% 1% 1%
Business 7% 10% -3% 1%
Engineering 3% 22% -6% 3%
Humanities and Arts -2% -6% 1% -7%
Life Sciences -1% 2% -5% -1%

“This report pretty much speaks for us as well,” said Dick Wheeler, dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who said the figures mirror numbers at his university. Wheeler said that the quantities of graduate students enrolling from India and the Middle East have stayed pretty much the same as last year, but that there has been a surge in students from China who are majoring in engineering. The number of new foreign graduate students in engineering jumped from 151 last year to 207 this year, increasing the total enrollment of foreign students in engineering from 850 to 908. ( This corrects information in an earlier version of the article.)

Wheeler said that his institution did make attempts to smooth the way for foreign graduates by creating friendlier Web sites and making applications easier to fill out. But he doubts if this really had much of an effect. He suspects that the driving forces for the increases are the federal changes to ease visa problems, along with global trends, such as the large number of Chinese undergraduates.

“I was in China last November for the first time and went to a recruiting event in Beijing,” he said. “There were 12 universities there and there were long lines for each university.” Wheeler adds that the University of Illinois has always had strong representation from Chinese graduate students and that informal ties back to universities in China attracts students to the university.

“A lot of our effort is involved in protecting our base and making this a comfortable base for graduate students,” he said.

At the University of Washington, Suzanne Ortega, vice provost and graduate dean, said that her institution experienced a rebound last year. She believes that two factors caused this earlier recovery: the university is closer to Asia than states on the East coast are and began recruiting aggressively in China and Southeast Asia a few years ago. “We have a flatter picture this year,” she said of Washington's growth in foreign graduates.

Still, Ortega said that the university's foreign graduate enrollment has not rebounded completely and is down 2 percent from pre-9/11 numbers. Today, 15 percent of the graduate students at Washington are foreign born.

“The real worry for [the U.S.] is not the total number but the quality of the students,” said Philip Altbach, director of Center for International Higher Education at Boston College.

Ortega agreed with this assessment but added that it is impossible to accurately measure any change in the quality of graduate students over time. Grade point averages cannot be fairly compared and standard scores have not changed at her university, she said.

Wheeler said that the overall feeling is that the crisis has now passed, but Stewart cautioned that there are many more problems that need to be fixed.


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