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International student applications to graduate schools in the United States are up 9 percent this year, and while the countries sending the most students are doing so at different rates, the gap between them has narrowed.

The first phase of an annual Council of Graduate Schools three-part survey, released today, finds several trends holding from last year: most applicants are going to institutions with already high international student enrollment; applications from the Middle East and Turkey are rising, though at a slower rate than in years past; and private, nonprofit colleges and universities boast the biggest increases.

Also, applications rose across the board, in all fields of study, with engineering, physical and earth sciences, and “other” fields -- those outside the aforementioned fields and arts and humanities, business, education, and social science and psychology -- leading the way. And applicants to business programs appear to be spreading out, with fewer students applying to the most popular institutions, and only a 1 percent increase overall.

Changes in International Graduate Applications, 2007-11

  2007 to 2008 2008 to 2009 2009 to 2010 2010 to 2011
Total +6% +4% +9% +9%
Country of Origin        
--China +11% +14% +20% +18%
--India +2% -12% +1% +7%
--South Korea +2% -9% 0% 2%
--Middle East and Turkey +14% +22% +20% +12%
Fields of Study        
Arts and Humanities +7% +5% +9% +8%
Business +10% +7% +11% +4%
Education -1% +8% +8% +9%
Engineering +4% +3% +8% +12%
Life Sciences +3% 0% +2% +8%
Physical and Earth Sciences +7% +2% +10% +12%
Social Sciences and Psychology +9% +6% +11% +5%
Other Fields N/A +11% +13% +13%

Last year, the survey showed that while international graduate applications were up 9 percent over all -- the same as this year, with 72 percent of institutions reporting growth -- the rates of growth from the three countries that send the most students were strikingly different. Applications from China rose 20 percent, compared to a 1 percent increase from India and no increase at all from South Korea (together, those three countries account for about half of international graduate students in the U.S.).

But this year, those three key countries have evened out a bit. China again saw a big (and not unexpected) increase of 18 percent, but India and South Korea’s applications rose, too, at 7 percent and 2 percent, respectively. (In last year’s annual Open Doors report, China overtook India as the country sending the most students to the U.S. And, noted Nathan E. Bell, director of research and policy analysis at CGS, applications from South Korea are actually fewer today than they were in 2008; they dropped 9 percent that year and stayed flat the year after.)

The changes reflected in the new report aren't huge, but are seen as a good sign about the interest of foreign students in graduate study in the U.S. Applications plummeted in 2003-4 following new wars in the Middle East and the post-9/11 crackdown on visas (it took a half dozen years to recover from that policy), and the global recession stunted growth in applications and enrollment in 2008-9.

“The growth that occurred this year in international applications was quite strong,” Bell said. “We want to make sure that the numbers continue to stabilize and recover.”

At some institutions, though, the rates of increase for Chinese applicants have not only not let up – they’re on the rise. The University of California at Davis saw a 37 percent increase this year (after a 10 percent rise last year). Applications from South Korea and the Middle East are down, and the rise in Indian applications matches CGS numbers. While Davis’s focus in recruiting international students lies mainly in South America, it has sustained efforts in China as well, said Jeffery C. Gibeling, dean of graduate studies.

“What we are seeing that I think is particularly interesting is that this year, the international applications are up significantly, whereas last fall ... it was the domestic applications that were up more significantly,” said Gibeling. “It’s heartening to see there’s continuing strong interest from around the world in U.S. graduate schools. At the same time, I and many of my colleagues who are graduate deans also want to be sure that we balance the enrollment of international students with our efforts to increase our diversity of domestic students in our graduate programs.”

While the rise in international applications is a good indicator that enrollments will be up this year as well, the number of students who actually go on to attend a U.S. college is expected to be lower than the number who applied. Historically, the increase in enrollment, which is revealed in the report’s third part in October, is three to six percentage points lower than the rise in applications reported every April.

Change in International Applications to Graduate Schools Ranked by Number of Degrees Awarded to International Students, 2010 to 2011

  Top 10 Top 100 All Other Institutions
Total +12% +10% +9%
Place of Origin      
--China +26% +20% +12%
--India +6% +8% +5%
--South Korea -4% +1% +3%
--Middle East and Turkey +9% +12% +12%

Institutions reported just one decline in international applications -- in business, the only field of study in which applications actually decreased at the 25 institutions that grant the most degrees to international graduate students. This appears to be a significant shift: while institutions outside the largest 100 experienced a 13 percent gain on average, about 70 percent of international graduate students studying business do so at institutions falling within the 100 largest. “While it is too early to tell if this is the case,” the report reads, “the decline in international applications in business at the 25 largest institutions, combined with the overall minimal increase at the 100 largest institutions, may be an indicator of increased global competition for business students.”

Bell said this could be a sign of domestic business programs becoming more competitive, as well, as more students are bypassing the most popular institutions in favor of smaller ones. “It might just be a one-time thing,” Bell said, “but it is something to pay attention to.”

One other point of interest is this year’s uptick in applicants to master’s-focused institutions. Those applications are up 13 percent this year after a 3 percent increase last year. But the jump is not necessarily indicative of an influx to such institutions; just 2 percent of total applications went to master’s-focused institutions, so it wouldn’t take a huge increase in numbers to make for a large percentage jump.

“Almost all international students applying to schools in the U.S. are applying to doctoral institutions. They may be coming in looking for a master’s degree, but they’re going to study at doctoral institutions,” Bell said. The increase in master’s-focused applications is “based on a very tiny shift,” he said.

At UC Davis, a doctoral-focused institution that falls around the No. 100 mark in terms of most degrees awarded to international graduate students, Gibeling is seeing trends mostly in line with what CGS is reporting. But he, like Bell, will be closely watching the next two installments of the report to see how the applications compare to offers of admission, and finally, enrollment.

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