Ups and Downs in Grad Admissions

Offers to international students increased 3% from 2009 to 2010, while offers to applicants from the U.S. dropped 1%.
August 19, 2010

Admissions offers by American graduate schools to international applicants increased by 3 percent from 2009 to 2010, reversing a 1 percent decline the previous year, according to a report being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools. Offers to Americans, meanwhile, fell by 1 percent in the last year, although that figure may not be final.

The figures are from the latest surveys conducted by the council, which closely tracks trends in the fluid and increasingly competitive world of attracting top graduate students.

As is increasingly common in reports on international enrollments in recent years, China is the driving factor behind the numbers. Offers of graduate admission to applicants from China are up 16 percent, the fifth consecutive year of double-digit gains. Generally, Chinese students are most likely to apply to and be offered admission to institutions that already have large graduate enrollments from outside the United States, so the largest gains will be seen at universities with large international enrollments. Those in the top 10 admitted 30 percent more Chinese graduate students this year.

Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis for the council, noted that the growth in applications and admissions from China reflects the continued capacity shortfall in China for those seeking advanced degrees. Another factor, he said, may be the increasing numbers of Chinese students who enroll as undergraduates in American colleges and universities -- and who may be particularly strong candidates for admission to graduate programs in the U.S.

Among the top countries sending students to the United States, the picture is far from uniform. While China's numbers boom year after year, India has been relatively flat. By field of study, applications were up across the board, but the changes in admissions offers were minimal except in business and the physical sciences.

Shifts in International Applications and Admissions Offers to U.S. Graduate Programs, 2009 to 2010

  Change in Applications Change in Admissions Offers
Total +9% +3%
Country / region    
--China +20% +16%
--India +1% -4%
--South Korea +0% -7%
--Middle East / Turkey +20% +10%
Field of study    
--Arts and humanities +9% +1%
--Business +11% +8%
--Education +8% +0%
--Engineering +8% +2%
--Life sciences +2% -5%
--Physical and earth sciences +10% +5%
--Social sciences +11% +3%

Bell generally found much about the data to be encouraging. While the declines in admissions offers to those from India and South Korea were disappointing, those declines were smaller than those of a year before -- when both countries saw drops of 14 percent.

Further, the large increase (9 percent) in international applications returned that figure to one of healthy growth and brings applications totals higher than those of 2003 for the first time since then.

The survey found that large institutions with large concentrations of graduate students are seeing some of the largest percentage increases this year. Patrick Osmer, graduate dean at Ohio State University, said that international applications were up 15 percent this year and admissions offers up 19 percent.

About a quarter of Ohio State's graduate students are from outside the United States, Osmer said, so attracting the best applicants is a major priority for the university. While the university has stepped up recruiting, especially in China, he noted that graduate admissions is highly decentralized, and that much depends on the efforts of individual graduate programs.

Among American students in the Council of Graduate Schools survey, there was a 9 percent increase in applications. The number of offers was flat at doctoral institutions, but down 6 percent at master's institutions.

The report cautions that while the figures are probably final for international students, that may not be the case for Americans. "[I]t is important to note that the figures for U.S. citizens and permanent residents are not as final as those for international students," the report says. "Some colleges and universities continue to admit students throughout the summer, particularly for master’s-level programs. Given the time it takes to secure a visa, international students are less likely to apply at this late stage than are domestic students, so it is possible that final figures on offers of admission will show less disparity between international students and U.S. citizens and permanent residents."


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