International Grad Student Apps Increase

Council of Graduate Schools survey shows 2 percent rise in international student applications, with more interest from India but drops in applications from China and for business degrees. Survey includes a first breakdown of applications by degree level.

June 30, 2015

Foreign students' applications to American graduate schools climbed by 2 percent this year, driven in part by continued growth in applications from India, according to survey results released today by the Council of Graduate Schools.

Applications from India increased by 12 percent over the previous year, the third straight year of such double-digit increases.

Meanwhile, the number of applications from China continued its modest decline -- another trend that's three years running -- dropping by 2 percent. These two country-specific trends -- China down, India up -- should be understood against the fact these two countries are the two largest sources of international students at U.S. graduate schools by far, together accounting for about 67 percent of all international applications received.

“China has been investing pretty heavily in its higher education capacity for both graduate education and research,” said Jeff Allum, the author of the report and the council's director of research and policy analysis. “I suspect that might be one reason why the number of applications from China appears to be going down, but there may be other reasons that quite frankly we're not fully able to explain yet.”

The picture is also mixed across the top fields of study. International applications in engineering -- the most popular field of study for non-American students -- increased by 4 percent. The number of international applications also increased by 14 percent for the physical and earth sciences, a category that includes mathematics and computer science programs. Fully half of all international applications to U.S. graduate programs are for engineering and mathematics and computer science programs.

At the same time, the number of international applications for the next most popular field of study for international students, business, dropped by 2 percent -- the first decline for the field since the council began collecting data on this topic in 2004.

Percent Change in International Applications to U.S. Graduate Schools

Final Number of Applications, 2011-12 Final Number of Applications, 2012-13 Final Number of Applications, 2013-14 Preliminary Number of Applications, 2014-15
International Total 9% 2% 10% 2%
Field of Study        
Arts and Humanities 7% 4% 5% 1%
Business 7% 1% 7% -2%
Education 18% -2% 4% 16%
Engineering 14% 5% 12% 4%
Life Sciences  -1% -7% -1% 16%
Physical and Earth Sciences 8% 3% 18% 14%
Social Sciences and Psychology 11% -2% 2% -2%
Other 9% 5% 4% 22%
Countries of Origin        
Brazil 9% 25% 61% 4%
Canada 7% -5% 1% 2%
China 19% -3% -1% -2%
India 3% 22% 33% 12%
Mexico 10% -8% 1% 8%
South Korea -1% -15% -5% 4%
Taiwan -2% -13% 0% 0%
Regions of Origin        
Africa -3% 4% 9% ***
Europe 7% -2% 3% -1%
Middle East 11% 2% 8% ***
Sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East *** *** *** 6%

 ***Changes not calculated because of changes in the definitions of regions.

For the first time this year, the CGS report breaks down international student applications according to degree level. Over all, about 63 percent of international applications were to master's and certificate programs, while the rest were for doctoral programs -- though there are big variations across countries and regions in this regard.

For example, about 84 percent of all graduate applications from India, and 64 percent of graduate applications from China, are for master’s or certificate programs. 

By contrast, applications from South Korea, the third-largest sending country, are skewed heavily (70 percent) toward doctoral programs. A large majority of graduate applications from Europe (65 percent) and the Middle East and North Africa (62 percent) were also for doctoral programs.

Also for the first time this year, the CGS report disaggregates the application data according to institutions' Carnegie classifications -- a breakdown that reveals variations in application trends across institutional types. Despite the overall 2 percent gain in international applications across all universities, only those institutions classified as having “very high research activity” reported growth (4 percent), while less research-intensive institutions reported declines (though the following chart shows especially large swings for private nonprofit institutions, the report stresses those results should be interpreted with caution because of the relatively small number of private institutions in the sample. Allum, the author of the study, also noted that private nonprofit universities tend to have smaller international enrollments than their public counterparts). 

Percent Change in International Graduate Applications by Institution Type from 2014 to 2015

  Public Private Nonprofit Total
All Institutions 1% 5% 2%
Research Universities (very high research activity) 2% 9% 4%

Research Universities (high research activity)

-5% -5% -5%
Doctoral/Research Universities -5% -22% -18%
Master's-Focused Universities 8 -10% -2%

A total of 377 universities -- 244 public and 133 private -- participated in the survey, for a 48 percent response rate. The Council of Graduate Schools estimates that the responding institutions account for about 70 percent of graduate degrees awarded to international students in the U.S. 

This year marks the tenth consecutive year the council has documented increases in the number of international applications to U.S. graduate schools. Though the 2 percent increase represents a slower rate of growth compared to the 10 percent gain recorded last year, Allum said he is not concerned. “We saw 2 percent growth two years ago, and then we learned that did not impact the overall growth in the offers of admission and first-time enrollment,” he said.

Allum noted that the report released today tracks numbers of applications, not applicants, as a single student might apply to many institutions. The application numbers included in today's report are preliminary, and the council will release survey data on final application numbers, offers of admission and new international enrollments later this year. 

Year-to-Year Percent Change in International Applications to U.S. Graduate Schools


Percent Change

2005 to 2006 12%
2006 to 2007 9%
2007 to 2008 6%
2008 to 2009 4%
2009 to 2010 9%
2010 to 2011 11%
2011 to 2012 9%
2012 to 2013 2%
2013 to 2014 10%
2014 to 2015 2%

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