Growth in Foreign Grad Students

The number of first-time international graduate students at U.S. graduate schools increased by 5 percent this fall. More than three-quarters of new students are in master's and certificate programs.

December 17, 2015

First-time enrollments of international students in U.S. graduate schools grew by 5 percent between fall 2014 and 2015, a slowdown from the 8-10 percent growth rate seen in the past few admissions cycles but higher than the rate of growth for domestic students (2 percent).

For the first time this year the Council of Graduate Schools’ annual survey of new international student enrollments breaks down the data according to degree level. More than three-quarters (77 percent) of first-time international graduate students are enrolled in master’s and certificate programs. The remaining proportion of international graduate students who start in doctoral programs is, at 23 percent, slightly higher than the proportion of domestic graduate students (19 percent) who do the same.

“It’s really an encouraging sign that these students are taking advantage of our master’s education, not just doctoral or research studies,” said Hironao Okahana, CGS's director of statistical analysis and policy research.

Rahul Choudaha, a global higher education strategist and analyst of international student-related trends, added that the big growth seen in enrollment of Chinese nationals at the undergraduate level may be fueling demand for U.S. master's programs. “The master's degree has become a really important pool to absorb Chinese students who came for undergraduate programs four or five years back and graduated last year,” he said, noting that students have limited options to stay in the U.S. after exhausting their 12-month postgraduation work authorization period (29 months if they studied in science, technology, engineering or mathematics fields). Graduate school is a way for them to stay.

The CGS survey found that about eight out of 10 (78 percent) of all new international graduate students came from Asia, with the top-sending country, China, accounting for 39 percent of all new students and India accounting for another 31 percent.

The number of new Chinese students at U.S. graduate schools increased by 12 percent this fall over the year before, despite the fact that the total number of applications submitted by Chinese nationals stayed flat. The number of new graduate students from India also increased by 12 percent this fall, following 40 percent growth in 2013 and 27 percent growth in 2014.

The number of new graduate students from Brazil declined 30 percent this fall after rising by 91 percent the year before.

Change in First-Time International Graduate Enrollment by Region or Country of Origin






Total 8% 10% 8% 5%
Asia -- -- -- 7%
     China 22% 5% -1% 12%
     India 1% 40% 27% 12%
     South Korea -2% -12% -7% 5%
     Taiwan -2% -8% -8% 2%
Europe 1% 3% 1% -4%
Latin America & Caribbean -- -- -- -6%
     Brazil 14% 17% 91% -30%
     Mexico 5% -2% 8% 6%
Middle East & North Africa -- -- -- 1%
     Saudi Arabia -- -- -- 5%
North America (Canada only) 4% 3% -1% 1%
Oceania -- -- -- -9%
Sub-Saharan Africa -- -- -- 9%

The CGS survey breaks down enrollment by program level and nationality. First-time graduate students from South Korea were most likely to enroll in doctoral programs (47 percent). First-time students from India were most likely to pursue master’s or certificate programs (91 percent).

Nearly three-quarters of first-time master’s and certificate students enrolled in programs in engineering (28 percent), business (22 percent), or mathematics and computer science (22 percent). The most popular fields of study for first-time international students enrolled in doctoral programs were engineering (31 percent), physical and earth sciences (14 percent), mathematics and computer sciences (12 percent), biological and agricultural sciences (11 percent), and social and behavioral sciences (10 percent).

Engineering was the most popular field for international students at both the master's and doctoral levels, but mathematics and computer sciences recorded the fastest growth this fall. First-time enrollments of international students in mathematics and computer science programs climbed by 11 percent from fall 2014 to 2015.

Change in First-Time International Graduate Enrollment by Field of Study

  Fall 2014-15
Total 5%
Arts & Humanities 5%
Biological & Agricultural Sciences 1%
Business 2%
Education 0%
Engineering 1%
Health Sciences -5%
Mathematics & Computer Sciences 11%
Physical & Earth Sciences 6%
Public Administration & Services 4%
Social & Behavioral Sciences 1%
Other Fields 7%

A total of 350 institutions responded to the Council of Graduate Schools survey, for a 44 percent response rate. In addition to data on new international student enrollments, the council also reported on final numbers of graduate applications submitted by prospective international students (this follows the release of preliminary data on application trends in June). The total number of applications submitted by prospective international students to U.S. graduate schools rose by 3 percent this fall, a slowdown from 10 percent growth the year before.


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