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The first-time enrollment of international graduate students grew by 8 percent  in 2011, the largest gain since 2006, according to data released today by the Council of Graduate Schools. In the intervening years, new graduate enrollments of students from outside the United States never rose by more than 4 percent and were flat in one year.

Total enrollment of international graduate students grew by 2 percent in 2011, up from a 1 percent rise the year before. To many who track international graduate enrollments -- a key part of total graduate enrollments, especially in science and technology fields -- the first-year data are the key statistics. Graduate programs vary in length, so a solid gain in new students generally sets graduate programs on a good path in terms of international enrollments in the years ahead.

The increases are likely to be especially welcome to American graduate programs because of increased competition in recent years from countries such as Australia, Britain and Canada for some of the best foreign talent.

This year’s increases are a result of a continuation of the trend of massive growth in Chinese graduate enrollments in the United States, and modest gains from other parts of the world that send many grad students to the United States, but have reported decreases in recent years.

China has for years been the largest international producer of American graduate students, and has been showing double-digit percentage gains in new students in recent years. This year’s 21 percent gain in new graduate enrollments from China follows gains in previous years of 20 percent, 16 percent and 14 percent. China has been building its own higher education capacity at a dramatic rate in recent years, but one result has been a rising demand for graduate education that China still cannot meet at home.

Among other regions and countries that are leading exporters of students to the United States, the Middle East this year continued steady growth, with new graduate enrollments up 14 percent, twice last year’s rate of increase.

New international enrollments from India are up only 2 percent this year, and the numbers are flat for students from South Korea. But in each of the past three years, first-year graduate enrollments from those countries have decreased -- so this year’s numbers represent an improvement from the perspective of American graduate programs

Change in First-Year Enrollment of International Graduate Students, by Country and Region

Country or Region 2007 to 2008 2008 to 2009 2009 to 2010 2010 to 2011
All +3% +0% +3% +8%


+16% +20% +21%
India -2% -16% -3% +2%
South Korea -4% -13% -3% +0%
Middle East and Turkey +8% +22% +7% +14%

Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis for the Council of Graduate Schools, cautioned that it may be difficult to attribute the ups and downs of numbers from certain countries to any one explanation. "It's important to remember that there are many factors that could be at play that affect the number of international students coming to U.S. graduate schools, such as the relative cost of graduate education in the U.S., the current economic situation within the home country, the capacity to provide graduate education within the home country, competition from other countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, etc., that also are recruiting international students, and so on," he said.

Bell added that while the survey can't explain the end of decreases from India and South Korea, the flow of graduate students from those countries has "basically stabilized," and for American graduate schools that "can be viewed as a positive story."

This year’s gains in new international students are evident across every discipline, but the largest gains were in education and in the physical and earth sciences (both up 12 percent). New enrollments in business also showed a notable increase (9 percent). The smallest gains were in life sciences (1 percent) and the social sciences (2 percent).

Increases in First-Year International Graduate Enrollments, 2011, by Field of Study

Field of Study Gain
Arts and humanities 5%
Business 9%
Education 12%
Engineering 6%
Life sciences 1%
Physical and earth sciences 12%
Social sciences and psychology 2%

Among institution types, private institutions saw larger gains than did public ones (10 percent vs. 8 percent). And continuing a trend in recent years, the largest gains were seen at institutions that already attract many international students. Among the 100 universities that award the greatest number of graduate degrees to people from outside the United States, the gain in first-time international enrollment was 9 percent. For all other institutions, the gain was 4 percent.

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