Grad Schools Remain a Global Draw

Report from the Council of Graduate Schools shows international graduate student applications and enrollments continue to grow, but the rate is slower than in recent years.

February 9, 2017

More international students continue to apply to and enroll in U.S. graduate institutions, though not at the rapid pace seen in recent years, according to a report released Thursday by the Council of Graduate Schools.

Application and enrollment rates did increase, but the rates of growth have slowed from last year -- down to 1 percent (from 3 percent in 2015) for applications and remaining constant at 5 percent for enrollment. Although the 5 percent enrollment growth rate is the same as 2015, both are down from the two previous cycles, which saw rates of growth of 10 percent in 2013 and 8 percent in 2014.

The annual International Graduate Applications and Enrollment report evaluated data collected from surveys last fall of nearly 400 participating U.S. graduate institutions. The surveys have been conducted every year since 2004. This year, the council collected data on students' degree objectives, regions of origin, eight major countries of origin and 11 fields of study.

China and India are still contributing the most first-time international graduate students by country, at 36 percent and 27 percent, respectively. But enrollment for Chinese graduate students remained flat this year over last, and it declined for India by 7 percent.

Compared to last year, enrollment from the Middle East and North Africa dropped by 11 percent -- 13 percent from Saudi Arabia by itself -- and from Brazil by 9 percent.

Over all, international graduate students make up 25 percent of first-time graduate student enrollment, based on data from universities that participated in the survey.

“International students continue to be a vital part of U.S. graduate education,” said Hironao Okahana, the report's author and assistant vice president of research and policy analysis for the Council of Graduate Schools.

Okahana called the 5 percent enrollment increase a “healthy” rate of growth and praised the milestone of international students reaching one-quarter of those enrolled in master’s and doctoral programs for the first time.

“We hope these trends will continue and doors for U.S. graduate education remain open for both domestic students and international students,” Okahana said.

In light of two recent major political events -- the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the 2016 U.S. presidential election -- it’s quite possible next year’s report could reflect a break in years of international students increasingly vying to study in the United States, Okahana said, though it’s still too early to predict exactly what changes may occur.

“There are several factors that seem to drive international student mobility into coming to the United States,” he said. “Political climate is a factor. It’s not the factor, but it’s a factor.” He cited the strength of the economy and job markets of both the U.S. and students’ home countries as other important considerations.

But more significant than Brexit and the election of President Trump, Okahana said, is the executive order Trump signed on Jan. 27, which temporarily barred immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East and Africa (before the order was suspended by a federal judge Feb. 3).

Beyond the prospective students living in those seven countries, others may interpret the order as a sign that the U.S. does not welcome foreign students or that their countries could at some point join the list.

“Certainly the executive order, this particular one, will put enormous uncertainty on visa holders, particularly those from the affected countries,” Okahana said. “I personally would not be surprised if this is weighing heavily in prospective students’ mind, or even current students who are already in the country.”

Because the survey was administered between Sept. 25 and Oct. 31, neither Trump’s election victory nor the executive order are captured in the report released Thursday, but Okahana said the Council of Graduate Schools will monitor the numbers closely over the next application and admission cycle.


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