New International Enrollments Climb at U.S. Grad Schools

Survey finds increases in international applications and first-time international enrollments at U.S. graduate schools last fall. But looking ahead to this fall, uncertainties abound.

February 12, 2020

First-time enrollments of international students at U.S. graduate schools increased by 4 percent in fall 2019 compared to the previous fall, according to new survey results from the Council of Graduate Schools. Applications from prospective international graduate students also increased by 3 percent.

While trends varied across institution types and fields of study, the overall results are good news for U.S. graduate schools, which reported declining international applications and stagnating new international enrollments over the prior two admission cycles.

But the release of the data comes against a context of big changes in the climate for international recruiting, including a U.S. government ban on travel of foreign nationals from China in response to the global spread of the coronavirus.

Another factor is a recently expanded travel ban that restricts immigration-related travel to the U.S. from six additional countries, including Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, a continent that has been a big source of growth for U.S. graduate schools over the past three years. (The newly expanded travel ban -- which also includes nationals of Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania, does not directly affect individuals on student visas and other forms of nonimmigrant visas, but advocates for international education say it sends an unwelcoming message.)

A "flash survey" conducted from mid-January to early February by CGS that garnered 174 responses found that 123 member institutions reported an increased number of incoming and returning international visitors, including graduate students, who experienced delays in U.S. visa processes over the past two years. Twenty-one institutions reported that they’d had students who were denied admission to the U.S. at ports of entry "due to former employment, social media posts, electronic device searches, or no reason given." The institutions described cases of students from China, Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia being turned back.

“It is gratifying to see an increase in applications, which is a real reflection, I think, of the appeal of U.S. graduate programs, and the continued appeal for first-time students. Once offers are made, students are accepting and coming,” said Suzanne Ortega, the president of CGS. “But we continue to remain worried about ensuring that the U.S. is seen as a welcoming place and that students once admitted can actually get their visas and come to the U.S.”

The CGS survey found that the number of applications and first-time graduate enrollments from China both increased by 3 percent in fall 2019 compared to the previous year. The number of applications from India did not change, while first-time graduate enrollments of Indian students increased by a modest 1 percent.

China and India are the two leading source countries for international graduate students coming to the U.S., together accounting for 63 percent of all first-time international graduate students, according to CGS's data. Asia accounts for 78 percent of all international first-time graduate students, followed by Europe (6 percent), Latin America and the Caribbean (5 percent), the Middle East and North Africa (4 percent), sub-Saharan Africa (also 4 percent), and Canada (2 percent).

The number of new students from the Middle East and North Africa stayed the same despite a 7 percent drop in the number of first-time students from Iran. Iranians, in general, are barred from coming to the U.S. under President Trump’s original travel ban, which also affects citizens of Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. There is an exception to the ban for Iranians coming on student and exchange visitor visas, but there have been about two dozen documented cases of Iranians being turned back at ports of entry despite holding valid student visas this academic year.

Meanwhile, graduate schools reported a 22 percent increase in new students coming from sub-Saharan Africa, following increases of 19 and 27 percent in the prior two years.

And the number of first-time graduate students from Mexico rebounded, increasing by 10 percent, following two consecutive years of declines.

The academic fields reporting the biggest increase in first-time international students were mathematics and computer science (11 percent), social and behavioral sciences (11 percent), and biological and agricultural sciences (10 percent), according to the survey.

First-time international graduate enrollment in engineering programs increased by 1 percent despite a 2 percent decline in international applications. Business programs reported declines in both international applications and first-time international enrollments of 3 percent and 2 percent, respectively.

The most research-intensive doctoral universities (known as R-1 institutions) reported increases both in new international master’s (5 percent) and doctoral (3 percent) students, and master's-level universities reported a 7 percent increase in new international master’s students. But for less research-intensive doctoral universities -- R-2 and R-3 institutions -- first-time international graduate enrollment declined by 1 percent at the master’s level and by 6 percent at the doctoral level.

CGS sent the survey to 775 American graduate schools, of which 403, or 52 percent, responded.

The data below show changes in first-time international enrollments by country and field of study over the past five admission cycles.

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

  Fall 2014-15 Fall 2015-16 Fall 2016-17 Fall 2017-18 Fall 2018-19
Worldwide Total +5% +5% -1% +1% +4%
Asia +7% +8% -2% +1% +6%
China +12% 0% +5% +1% +3%
India +12% -7% -13% 0% +1%
Japan -- -- +3% -17% +8%
South Korea +5% +10% -12% -4% +1%
Taiwan +2% +14% +10% +1% +5%
Europe -4% +8% +1% -3% -3%
Latin America & Caribbean -6% +5% -10% +4% 0%
Brazil -30% -9% +18% -2% -7%
Mexico +6% +12% -10% -5% +10%
Middle East and North Africa +1% -11% -5% -12% 0%
Iran -- -- -16% -10% -7%
Saudi Arabia +5% -13% -2% -18% +1%
North America (Canada only) +1% -3% -7% +3% +6%
Oceania -9% +7% -6% -9% +7%
Sub-Saharan Africa +9% +3% +27% +19% +22%

Change in First-Time Graduate Enrollment by Field of Study

  Fall 2014-15 Fall 2015-16 Fall 2016-17 Fall 2017-18 Fall 2018-19
All Fields +5% +5% -1% +1% +4%
Arts & Humanities +5% +6% -12% -7% 0%
Agricultural and Biological Sciences +1% +2% -1% -4% +10%
Business +2% +7% -11% -7% -2%
Education 0% +7% -16% -31% +9%
Engineering +1% -3% -10% -17% +1%
Health Sciences -5% -14% +3% -16% +8%
Mathematics and Computer Sciences +11% +4% +2% +1% +11%
Physical and Earth Sciences +6% -3% -1% -15% +6%
Public Administration and Services +4% +7% +4% -49% +8%
Social and Behavioral Sciences +1% +9% 0% -6% +11%
Other Fields +7% +11% +4% -2% +9%

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Elizabeth Redden

Elizabeth Redden, Senior Reporter, covers general higher education topics, religion and higher education, and international higher education for Inside Higher Ed. She has more than a decade of experience as an education journalist. She holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from Columbia University.

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