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A new survey of international enrollments at U.S. graduate schools found that first-time enrollment of international graduate students dropped 39 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020, an unprecedented drop likely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But substantial numbers of admitted students deferred their admission offers to a future term, according to the new survey conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools. Among all admission offers to international students for master’s and certificate programs, 12 percent were deferred and 17 percent yielded first-time enrollments. Among all admission offers to international students for doctoral programs, 10 percent were deferred and 33 percent yielded first-time enrollments.

The CGS survey found that the total number of applications increased by 3 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020, the same rate of increase as the year before, suggesting that the sharp drop-off in first-time enrolled students had much more to do with health and travel issues related to the pandemic than a decrease in interest. Over all, first-time enrollment of graduate students declined by 43 percent at the master’s level and by 26 percent at the doctoral level.

"This is an extraordinary cycle," said Hironao Okahana, CGS's vice president for research and knowledge development. "What will come for fall 2021 is obviously unknown, but at the very least I’m taking some optimism from the increase in graduate applications to U.S. programs. That is still a sign that master’s and doctoral education in the U.S. is valued by international talent."

This year's 39 percent drop in first-time international graduate enrollment follows a 4 percent increase reported in CGS's survey last year. Many international education professionals have worried about the impact of the Trump administration's visa and immigration policies on international students' view of American higher education and whether they feel welcomed here. A separate census of international student enrollments conducted annually by the Institute of International Education has recorded three straight years of declines in international enrollments in U.S. graduate programs.

But the authors of the CGS survey, which is based on an analysis of survey responses from about 280 mostly doctoral-granting institutions, found reason to think the trend line was going in a positive direction -- pre-pandemic, at least.

"We estimate that had it not been for the global pandemic, we might have more international graduate students enrolled at U.S. institutions in Fall 2020 than Fall 2019," they wrote.

But of course the pandemic happened, and international enrollments were hit hard by a combination of health concerns, pandemic-related travel restrictions and suspensions in normal visa processing at U.S. embassies and consulates. Additionally, guidance promulgated by the Trump administration last summer barred new international students from coming to the U.S. if they planned to take their courses entirely online.

Among the findings of the CGS survey, researchers found that first-time graduate enrollment decreased by 37 percent among students from China and 66 percent among students from India, the top two countries of origin for international students. Among those who received admission offers in fall 2020, students from India were much more likely than Chinese students to defer, especially at the master's and certificate level. Among Indian students granted admission to master's and certificate programs, 21 percent deferred while just 8 percent enrolled. Among Chinese students granted admission to master's and certificate programs, 6 percent deferred and 16 percent enrolled.

At the doctoral level, students from Iran were most likely to defer admission and least likely to enroll. Just 13 percent of Iranian students admitted to doctoral programs in fall 2020 enrolled, far below the average across all nationalities of 33 percent. Iranian students faced particular challenges in securing visas to come to the U.S. even prior to the pandemic, often facing long delays while their applications underwent an additional layer of security checks.

Declines in first-time international enrollments from the United States' neighbors, Canada (-5%) and Mexico (-6%), were substantially lower than for most of the rest of the world. The number of international students coming from Oceania -- the region that includes Australia and New Zealand and sends the smallest number of international students to the U.S. -- actually increased, by 5 percent.

There were substantial declines in first-time international enrollment across all major fields of study from fall 2019 to fall 2020. The fields that saw rates of decline that exceeded the overall average of 39 percent were mathematics and computer sciences (-53 percent), engineering (-52 percent), public administration and services (-51 percent), and business (-41 percent).

The survey also found substantial numbers of deferred offers at both the bachelor's and doctoral levels across all major fields of study, as shown in the chart below.

Percentage of Fall 2020 International Admission Offers that Resulted in Deferrals or Acceptances by Field of Study

  Percent Deferred, Master's & Certificate Programs Percent Enrolled in Fall 2020, Master's & Certificate Programs Percent Deferred, Doctoral Programs Percent Enrolled in Fall 2020, Doctoral Programs
Total 12% 17% 10% 33%
Arts & Humanities 9% 23% 8% 39%
Biological & Agricultural Sciences 10% 24% 12% 40%
Business 9% 23% 6% 56%
Education 6% 31% 9% 36%
Engineering 16% 11% 12% 30%
Health Sciences 10% 27% 10% 43%
Mathematical & Computer Sciences 15% 11% 8% 31%
Physical & Earth Sciences 0% 10% 9% 26%
Public Administration & Services 12% 21% 15% 41%
Social & Behavioral Sciences 8% 21% 5% 34%
Other Fields 10% 21% 10% 41%

Large numbers of deferrals are just one variable that graduate deans have to weigh in making admission decisions for this coming fall's class. Scott M. Lanyon, vice provost and dean of graduate education at the University of Minnesota, said graduate applications are down 8 percent compared to this time last year, while the number of students who deferred admission offers last fall -- 845 -- was 259 percent higher than the previous year, with most of those deferrals (620) involving international students. Meanwhile, some students whose research was disrupted by the pandemic are delaying their graduation.

"Deferrals, delays in graduation, declines in application numbers -- all those things are being weighed by admission committees now," Lanyon said.

"Admissions is always guesswork to some extent, trying to figure out what percentage of people will accept our offers, what percentage of people who deferred would actually matriculate, but there are trends programs can use to make an informed decision," Lanyon added. "This year, it's hard to know whether those past trends are going to be helpful."

Anneli Richter, the associate dean for graduate admissions at Duke University, said about 350 students, most of them international, deferred graduate admission offers last fall. The university has begun sending those students new admission letters and asking them about their plans.

Richter said there's been a very positive response, but she stressed there are "more unknowns than knowns" about the fall.

"I can say that most have the intention to come back, so we’re not concerned about many saying, 'Never mind, I’m not coming,'" she said. "I think the concern is more the general one -- whether you’re a deferred candidate coming back or you’re a new incoming student -- is will you be able to get here?"

"It’s too early to tell where we’re going to land because the big questions that students want answers to we don’t have answers to yet and we’re still in the admit process," Richter added. Those questions, she said, include whether classes will be held in person or online and what the situation looks like for visa processing.

Graham Hammill, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the graduate school at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said graduate applications from international students at his institution are up, both among deferred students who are resubmitting applications as well as among new applicants.

"I take that to be really good news," Hammill said. "The world of international graduate education has been through some pretty hard times these past couple of years because of the geopolitical climate and because of the pandemic."

"I’m feeling optimistic that if we don’t get to where we want to be in fall 2021, we’ll get there in the next academic year," he added. "There are a lot of uncertainties around quarantine requirements, vaccination requirements and what visa access is going to look like. We don’t have answers yet, but I’m optimistic that we will get there."

Change in Applications and First-Time Enrollments by Region/Country of Origin and Field of Study

  Percent Change in Applications from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 Percent Change in First-Time Graduate Enrollment from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020
Total +3% -39%
Region/Country of Origin    
Asia +5% -47%
China +6% -37%
India +5% -66%
Japan -1% -20%
South Korea +3% -11%
Taiwan +11% -35%
Europe -12% -26%
Latin America & Caribbean -5% -20%
Brazil -12% -33%
Mexico +12% -6%
Middle East & North Africa -3% -36%
Iran +8% -56%
Saudi Arabia -21% -36%
North America (Canada only) +2% -5%
Oceania +14% +5%
Sub-Saharan Africa +7% -28%
Field of Study    
Arts & Humanities -1% -32%
Biological & Agricultural Sciences +10% -35%
Business -1% -41%
Education -4% -33%
Engineering 0% -52%
Health Sciences +2% -38%
Mathematics & Computer Sciences +12% -53%
Physical & Earth Sciences +17% -33%
Public Administration & Services -12% -51%
Social & Behavioral Sciences +6% -28%
Other Fields -16% -46%

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