Shifts in Grad Enrollments

Figures for first-time students who are from the U.S. are up 6 percent; new international numbers are flat, with significant variation by country.
November 10, 2009

The number of international first-time students at American graduate schools is flat this year, following four consecutive years of growth, according to a study being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools. At the same time, enrollments of American students are up 6 percent in a year.

For both groups, the numbers do not seem to reflect any single trend but rather a combination of circumstances.

For instance, among the graduate schools in the survey, some are seeing larger increases in American students, but others are seeing decreases. For the 166 reporting increases, the average was 11 percent. For the 79 reporting decreases, the average decline was 7 percent. Generally, doctoral institutions reported larger increases than master's-oriented institutions.

The council's survey -- although it includes some questions about domestic students -- focuses primarily on international students. While there are figures for total enrollments as well as first-time enrollments, the latter are particularly important in projecting future trends. Because doctoral programs take many years to complete, first-year figures are a better indicator than total enrollments of how the market for international students is changing. And this year, the first-year numbers are changing all over the place.

As has been the case in recent years, the enrollments of graduate students from China continued to surge. But gains from the Middle East and Turkey were much larger than they have been in recent years, while figures from India and South Korea -- major provider nations of graduate students -- were down.

One-Year Changes in First-Time International Graduate Enrollments

Country of Origin 2006 2007 2008 2009
China +20% +19% +14% +16%
India +32% +8% -2% -16%
South Korea +5% +3% -4% -13%
Middle East and Turkey -1% +12% +8% +22%
All countries +12% +4% +3% +0%

In some sense the data are not surprising in that they largely mirror what the council found in an earlier survey on graduate admissions offers. But the question remains: Why are some countries sending far fewer graduate students to the United States?

Last month, The Economic Times of India reported on a 25 percent drop in the number of U.S. visas being awarded in India. The experts in the article said that the problem was not the difficulty of obtaining visas (a complaint in the past) but reductions in the financial aid packages being offered by American universities to Indian students, decreasing the desire of many of them to apply for visas.

Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools, said that the rationale identified in that article "rings true," although the council's survey did not ask for information about why various programs were seeing gains and dips. Some graduate school officials, however, have told him that there is some hesitancy among foreign students about borrowing to pay for graduate education at a time when job prospects are uncertain.

Bell stressed that "it's no one thing in any country, but a combination of factors." For instance, he said that Chinese students may be as reluctant to borrow as are Indian students, but he noted that the increase in undergraduate enrollments in China has been so dramatic that demand for graduate education continues to surge, leading many to come to the United States.

Another key issue is competition. Bell noted that countries like India and China have seen an expansion in graduate education offerings, and that other Western nations -- such as Canada and Britain -- are wooing foreign students. "I think there is some cause for concern," he said. "Twenty years ago, the United States was your destination of choice. Now there are other countries to consider and the option of staying at home," he said.

The data also show some notable changes -- although less dramatic than those for country of origin -- in field of study. Physical and earth sciences, one of the areas showing a decline, is historically one of the dominant subject areas for international students. And science and technology fields are generally flat, following years in which many showed significant increases.

One-Year Changes in First-Time International Graduate Enrollments

Field of Study 2006 2007 2008 2009
Arts and humanities -6% +4% -1% -3%
Business +10% +12% +4% +0%
Education +8% -6% -2% +5%
Engineering +22% +8% +1% +0%
Life sciences +2% +6% +1% +0%
Physical and life sciences +5% +2% +5% -4%
Social sciences and psychology +3% -1% -1% +1%


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