International Admissions Fall

For the first time since 2004, the number of international students admitted to U.S. graduate schools has declined, report finds. Domestic applications, however, increase.
August 20, 2009

For the first time since 2004, admission of international students to U.S. graduate schools has declined, and students from India and South Korea are applying in significantly fewer numbers as well, according to a report released today by the Council of Graduate Schools.

Admissions from prospective international students declined by 3 percent from 2008 to 2009, and applications from India and South Korea fell by 12 percent and 9 percent, respectively.

“The entire global economy has got to have played a part in what’s happening for fall of ’09,” said Nathan Bell, the council’s research director.

The council’s survey does not ask institutions to comment on their admissions and application numbers, but Bell suspects graduate schools may have had to scale back on recruiting internationally given the state of the economy. While application numbers increased by 4 percent from 2008 to 2009, that marks the third consecutive year of slowing growth. The largest application increases were from China, which had 14 percent growth -- still 3 percentage points lower than the previous year's growth.

The data suggest institutions with lower international enrollments were the most likely to see declines in international admissions. While the schools with the 10 largest international enrollments saw an average 4 percent increase in admissions, a pool of the 100 largest internationally enrolled schools saw a 3 percent decline in admissions on average.

Unsurprisingly, domestic applications surged over the last year, with 75 percent of graduate schools reporting increases. Interest in graduate school typically increases when the job market declines, and the council’s data suggest this year has been no exception. On the other hand, it’s difficult to say whether those students will pursue graduate education if employment opportunities emerge.

“I don’t know what percentage of those students were simply hedging their bets,” Bell said.

Va. Tech Takes Solace in Korean Uptick

Not all types of institutions had the same experience this year. Doctoral institutions saw a 4 percent increase in international applications, compared with a 1 percent decline at master’s institutions. Terminal master's programs, whether or not they are at doctoral institutions, seldom offer generous fellowships. Doctoral programs, however, often offer such support.

Virginia Tech, a doctoral institution, saw increases or less significant declines in applications from areas of the world that have declined overall in application numbers. The university had an 8 percent increase in South Korean applications, for instance, besting the average by 17 percentage points. That’s particularly significant for Virginia Tech, which has worked to make Korean students feel welcome in the wake of the horrific 2007 campus shootings, which were perpetrated by Seung-Hui Cho, a South Korean-born student.

Some Korean students and their parents have been concerned about how they might be received at Virginia Tech after the shootings, and the graduate application numbers suggest that fear may be waning, according to Karen DePauw, vice president and dean for graduate studies. That said, the university has more outreach work to do.

“That’s certainly reasonable [concern] from their perspective,” said DePauw, chair of the Council of Graduate Schools Board of Directors. “It’s their perception and I think it lingers a little bit, and it will for a while until people understand what we are doing here to make a welcoming and inclusive environment. But it’s going to be there for a while.”

Apart from increasing its South Korean applications above the average, Virginia Tech also saw just a 2 percent decline in applications from Indian students – 10 percentage points lower than the average decline.

About 26 percent of Virginia Tech’s graduate students are international, and most of the international students are funded through assistantships or stipends from their home countries, DePauw said. For those without such funding sources, however, there are likely to be challenges this year, she said.

“There are some international students who come on their own dime and hope to pick up funding during their stay in the United States,” DePauw said, “and it’s those resources that are in question.”

Change in International Admissions Offers

  2005 to 2006 2006 to 2007 2007 to 2008 2008 to 2009
International Total +14% +7% +3% -3%
China +24% +24% +15% +13%
India +26% +9% -2% -16%
South Korea +4% -3% -2% -16%
Middle East & Turkey +6% +4% +13% +10%

Change in International Applications

  2005 to 2006 2006 to 2007 2007 to 2008 2008 to 2009
International Total +12% +9% +6% +4%
China +19% +19% +11% +14%
India +26% +12% +2% -12%
South Korea +4% 0% +2% -9%
Middle East & Turkey +10% +17% +14% +22%


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