International Applications Up 4%

April 7, 2009

Graduate school applications from foreign students grew 4 percent between 2008 and 2009, with the increase "driven almost entirely" by growth at institutions with the largest numbers of international students enrolled already, according to a new survey from the Council of Graduate Schools. Foreign applications rose 6 percent at the top 100 destination institutions for international students, but dropped 4 percent at institutions outside the top 100.

There was significant variation not only by destination institution, but also by country of origin. Applications from China were up 16 percent this year but applications from India and South Korea fell 9 and 7 percent, respectively.

"China, India and South Korea send the most graduate students to the United States. They're the three largest sending countries and the fact that two of those countries had declines is something we really need to watch carefully and see if this is the beginning of a new trend," said Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis at the council and author of the report, released today.

For context, over the previous three years, applications from India rose by 26, 12 and 2 percent, while those from South Korea were flatter, rising 4, 0 and 2 percent each year. On the other hand, this year represents the fourth consecutive year of double-digit increases in applications from China, as well as the Middle East and Turkey, from which applications increased 20 percent this year.

Percent Change in International Graduate Applications

  Final Applications, 2005
to 2006
Final Applications, 2006
to 2007
Final Applications, 2007
to 2008
Preliminary Applications, 2008
to 2009
International Total 12% 9% 6% 4%
Region of Origin
China 19 19 11 16
India 26 12 2 -9
South Korea 4 0 2 -7
Middle East and Turkey 10 17 14 20
of Study
Arts and Humanities 5 8 7 8
Business 16 15 10 7
Education 1 12 -1 1
Engineering 19 13 4 4
Life Sciences 9 18 3 -2
Physical and Earth Sciences 15 12 7 4
Social Sciences and Psychology 6 0 9 4
Other Fields -- -- -- 4

Source: Council of Graduate Schools

*This table has been corrected due to incorrect data on field of study provided in the Council's original report.

The 4 percent overall growth rate represented the third consecutive year of slowdowns in the rate of increase, after upturns of 12, 9 and 6 percent the three years prior (those increases followed two consecutive years of post-9/11 declines). Consistent with the disparities across institutions with larger and smaller graduate enrollments, applications from international students rose 5 percent at doctoral institutions for the fall but fell 17 percent at master's institutions.

"There's tremendous variation," said Eva J. Pell, senior vice president for research and dean of the graduate school at Pennsylvania State University. "The large universities like Penn State and our colleagues in the Big 10, for example, we're not seeing the dropoff. We have a pretty sizable increase."

Consistent with the national data, Penn State also saw increases in applications from China but decreases from India and South Korea. "It's a little puzzling," said Pell. "It's got to have some relationship with the home country's opportunities in relation to the number of students that want to go on for higher education. There must be something different about those ratios in those different countries."

The University of New Hampshire, on the other hand, is seeing a dropoff. There, the application pool contracted 17 percent from last year to this year -- but it's still up 27 percent from where it was three years ago, said Harry Richards, dean of the graduate school.

He said that New Hampshire's own concerns about finances -- not just those of prospective students -- might have helped fuel this year's decrease. New Hampshire requires international students to submit pre-applications, "And my sense is that we did not encourage as many [actual] applications this year because of concerns over finances. A number of these students receive support. ... We just knew we weren’t going to have as much support for students available," Richards said.

"I’m concerned with the drop. I’m concerned with whether or not we can turn applications into enrollments and the economy will play a part in that. But it’s going to be partly our economy," Richards said.

Here's one possible rule of thumb for playing the prediction game: "While it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty what will happen in fall 2009," the report's conclusion states, "the increases in international applications in the last two years have been about twice as large as the resulting increases in first-time international enrollment. In 2007, international applications increased 9 percent, but first-time enrollment increased just 4 percent, and in 2008, international applications increased 6 percent, compared with a 3 percent increase in first-time enrollment."

A total of 245 institutions responded to the Council's survey, representing a 49.5 percent response rate; numbers should be considered preliminary as some institutions did not have final numbers at the time they submitted data. The council will release data on actual enrollments later this year.

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