International Student Growth Still Slowing

Survey of graduate schools finds that international student population is still increasing, but not as rapidly.
November 10, 2008

International student enrollment at U.S. graduate schools continues to grow, but at slower rates than in recent years, according to new survey results from the Council of Graduate Schools.

“I think what we’re going to need to do is follow this next year and see what happens. It could be a leveling off, or it could be signifying that the numbers are starting to drop,” says Nathan Bell, the report's principal author and director of research and policy analysis at the Council. “We’ve seen this declining trend and whether it levels at this point or continues is the question.”

Consistent with earlier findings regarding a slowdown in growth of international student applicants and admits this year, the Council's latest survey found that first-time enrollment of international graduate students increased by 3 percent from 2007-8, compared to 4 percent growth last year and 12 percent the year before. Total international student enrollment increased by 3 percent in 2008, a slowdown from a 7 percent rise last year (growth was 1 percent the year before that). Because many foreign students are in the United States for long programs, first-year enrollments are a better long-term indicator of trends than total enrollment, which includes many students about to finish up and leave.

By country, there were absolute drops in first-time international students from India and South Korea, two of the top three countries of origin for U.S. international students (along with China).

The number of first-time students from India dropped 2 percent in 2008, after an 8 percent rise in 2007, and the number from South Korea fell 4 percent after increasing by 3 percent the year before. Meanwhile, the number of first-time students from China and the Middle East rose by 14 and 8 percent, although these gains still represent slowing growth compared to increases in 2007.

Post September 11, universities in the United States saw drops in new international student enrollment, followed by years of growth. Of the 69 graduate schools that responded to the survey in 2004 and 2008, 43 percent have fewer international students now than in 2003, with the average gap between now and then at these institutions being 16 percent.

Pennsylvania State University, which experienced 12 percent growth in first-time international enrollment this year, is still 5 percent below its total international enrollment of 2,539 in 2003. But, says Eva J. Pell, vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, “The decline we had in the last five years is much, much lower than the increase we had in the five years that preceded 2003."

"These things are cyclical," Pell says. “What I’m happy about is we have flattened out. We dipped to 2,395 in 2005 and now we’ve come back up into the 2,400 and some range and we’ve stayed there."

In the short term, things are fine, she says, but in the longer-term, the numbers do herald increased competition from abroad. "Over time we are going to find that there are going to be more Chinese students, more Indian students who will say, 'Thank you very much, I’ve got good schools here I can go to,' " she says. She points out that international applications have fallen at Penn State from over 9,000 in 2003 to about 7,200 this year for just over 600 spots -- they're still getting the quality applicants they want with that ratio but, "The fact that you have 7,000 when you used to have 9,000, fast forward another 10 years and another 10 years. There is going to be real change."

As part of the council's survey, institutions reported on actions they’ve taken to increase international student enrollment. Most commonly, graduate schools are working with foreign universities or consortia to identify potential international students; 54 percent said they had done this within the last two years. Meanwhile, 41 percent of institutions said they had devoted more funding to marketing and promotion of graduate programs, 36 percent said they’d asked current staff to spend more time on international recruiting and outreach, 31 percent said they'd set aside more money for international recruitment trips, and 17 percent said they'd worked with commercial organizations to expand their applicant pool. Just 12 percent hired new staff to recruit more international students.

There were some differences in approach by size of an institution’s international graduate student enrollment. Institutions with smaller enrollments were much more likely to have worked with commercial organizations to expand their international applicant pool, for instance (5 percent of the largest 50 reported doing so, compared to 20 percent outside that group).

The survey also found slowdowns in growth in specific fields, with some variation -- education programs are experiencing the most significant declines, and physical sciences and business are seeing the largest gains in international student enrollment.

% Changes in International Graduate Student Enrollment by Field

Field of Study First-Time Enrollment, 2006-7 First-Time Enrollment, 2007-8 Total Enrollment, 2006-7 Total Enrollment 2007-8
Business +12% +4% +10% +2%
Education -6% -2% -2% +0%
Engineering +8% +1% +8% +3%
Humanities and Arts +4% -1% +1% +0%
Life Sciences +6% +1% +3% +3%
Physical Sciences +2% +5% +0% +2%
Social Sciences -1% -1% +1% +2%

Source: Council of Graduate Schools

The survey had a 37 percent response rate, with 181 institutions participating -- including all 10 institutions with the largest international graduate student enrollments and 43 of the largest 50. “We really do think that these trends do apply to graduate education as a whole," says Bell.


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