Mixed Picture on International Enrollment

Survey finds increases in total numbers of international students at U.S. graduate schools, but rate of growth among new students is slowing.
November 7, 2007

Total international student enrollment at U.S. graduate schools jumped 7 percent from 2006 to 2007 after increasing just 1 percent the year before -- the biggest gain in total enrollments since 2002. But the rate of growth for first-time enrollments, a key indicator of future trends, slowed to a third of the previous year’s level, according to survey results released Tuesday by the Council of Graduate Schools.

First-time enrollment for international graduate students increased by 4 percent from 2006-7, compared to a 12 percent rise the year before. Meanwhile, despite the significant rise in total international enrollments – partly a function of last year’s large increase in first-time enrollments – nearly half of the graduate schools that responded to the survey in 2004 and 2007 have fewer international students now than in 2003 (on average, the difference is 7 percent).

"The rebound in total international enrollment is continuing for the second straight year. And that’s good news," said Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. "But the rate of growth for first-time enrollment slowed significantly and that’s a serious issue that we need to be paying attention to.”

While some universities may again be at or nearing capacity, “In absolute terms, in absolute numbers, we’re still below where we were in the years before the 9-11 impacts," Stewart said.

The survey found that the rate of growth in admissions offers to international students also slowed from the previous year, this time by half (a 7 percent growth in admissions offers to non-U.S. citizens in 2007 compared to 14 percent the year before). Yet, the picture is not uniform across all institutions. Universities with smaller international enrollments experienced the largest increases in international admissions and enrollments, with the top 25 in terms of international graduate student enrollment reporting a 5 percent gain in admission offers, and institutions outside the top 50 reporting a 9 percent gain. First-time enrollments at graduate schools outside the top 50 increased at four times the rate (4 versus 1 percent) as the top 25 destinations for international students.

“It is possible,” the report notes, “that the largest institutions are already at or near capacity in their populations of international students, which makes large-scale growth at the smallest institutions more likely.”

Karen DePauw, vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the graduate school at Virginia Tech, concurred with that assessment. She referenced, for instance, some of the more striking slowdowns in this year's data, which involve students from India and engineering students. First-time enrollment for Indian students increased by 8 percent this year compared to 32 percent the year before, while admissions offers increased by 9 percent this year relative to 26 percent the year before; for engineering, first-time enrollment growth was 8 percent this year, compared to 22 percent the year before.

“For us at Tech, we have a significant Indian population and most of them are interested in engineering, and I think that sometimes we can reach a point of not being able to admit and enroll all of the qualified students -- from India for example in engineering -- because our population is large," DePauw said.

“For me," she added, "it’s exciting that the smaller institutions are also attracting international students, and putting the focus on that, and that the international students are going there as well."

The survey finds broad interest in international student recruitment across all graduate schools. Eighty-seven percent of graduate deans participated in some type of international outreach during the last two years, with 36 percent attending international student recruitment fairs and 48 percent visiting foreign universities to form partnerships, for instance.

Other significant findings in the report include that total enrollments of students from China, the second-biggest exporter of international students after India, increased 15 percent this year after dropping 2 percent last year, and first-time enrollments and admissions for students from China increased at about the same rate in 2006-7 as in 2005-6. There was also growth among students from the Middle East, who make up about 5 percent of total international enrollment.

"One of the things it tells me is that the whole situation involving graduate student enrollments is still fairly uncertain and volatile," Jeffery Gibeling, dean of graduate studies at the University of California at Davis, said of the report. "There are some mixed numbers, and I anticipate that we will probably see changes like that for the foreseeable future ... an overall upward trend, but probably a lot of bumps in the road from one year to the next."

Key findings of the survey, which 172 graduate schools completed (for about a 36 percent respondent rate), are included in the chart below. Nine of 10 institutions with the highest international student enrollments responded to the survey, as did 76 percent of the top 25 and 68 percent of the top 50.

Changes in International Student Enrollment and Admissions

  First-Time Enrollment, 2005-6 First-Time Enrollment, 2006-7 Total Enrollment, 2005-6 Total Enrollment, 2006-7 Admissions 2005-6 Admissions 2006-7
All International Students 12% 4% 1% 7% 14% 7%
Country of Origin            
China 20% 19% -2% 15% 24% 24%
India 32% 8% 8% 14% 26% 9%
South Korea 5% 3% -3% 2% 4% -3%
Middle East -1% 12% 1% 5% 6% 4%
Field of Study            
Business 10% 12% 1% 10% 15% 4%
Education 8% -6% -9% -2% 9% -8%
Engineering 22% 8% 3% 8% 27% 5%
Humanities & Arts -6% 4% -7% 1% -6% 3%
Life Sciences 2% 6% -1% 3% 4% 4%
Physical Sciences 5% 2% -4% 0% 7% -10%
Social Sciences 3% -1% -2% 1% 3% -1%

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