International applications to graduate programs in education grew at almost double the rate of other master's and doctoral programs this year.
Teachers College, Columbia University has seen an 18 percent increase in applications from abroad this year, including a 70 percent bump in applications from China.
International applications to all U.S. graduate and professional programs were up 9 percent  this year, according to a new Council of Graduate Schools study . But the change was more striking in graduate education programs, where applications grew 17 percent. Anecdotally, it appears China makes up much of that difference.
Elite education programs -- including Columbia, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Berkeley -- are among those noting significant increases. Chinese applicants are leading those increases at Columbia and Southern California. Berkeley didn't have country-by-country data readily available.
Elsewhere, the trend has been less pronounced. Nathan Bell, director for research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools, said applications are down at some colleges. Bell cautions against looking too deeply into the data since only 5 percent of international graduate students pursue a degree in education. Still, he said, there are signs this year's surge from China is more than an anomaly. “What can happen when there’s a relatively small number is you can have rather large increases,” Bell said. “[But the data] does suggest that perhaps the number of international students pursuing graduate degrees in education is on the rise.”
That’s certainly the case at Southern California, where a new master’s program in teaching English as a second language has been dominated by Chinese applicants. About a quarter of the education school’s graduate applications are from international students. Of those, about two-thirds are Chinese. The school is also starting a master's program that will be taught partly online, partly in Hong Kong and partly in Los Angeles. Most applicants to that program aren't Chinese.
While the English as a second language program can be taken online, most international applicants want an immersive experience in Los Angeles. American expatriates are more inclined to opt for the online degree.
“It makes sense,” said Alex Duke, the assistant dean for enrollment at Southern California’s education school. “You’re really coming to the U.S. for an education on how to teach English, and if you go back to China there are going to excellent employment options to put that education to use.”
At Teachers College, foreign students are spread pretty evenly among several degree programs, said Thomas Rock, executive director of enrollment services at Teachers College. As at Southern California, several foreign students are studying to teach English as a second language in their home countries.
But most foreign Teachers College students aren’t preparing to be classroom teachers, and are instead studying policy or potential reforms to the education systems in their home countries.
Rock isn’t exactly sure why he’s seeing such “unprecedented growth” in global interest, but attributes it in part to Columbia’s outreach efforts in Asia and an overall growth in international exchanges. He said Chinese applicants tend to be younger than their American peers, and are often fresh out of top undergraduate programs in either the U.S. or China.
Gains in this year's international education applicants at Berkeley are still significant, though at 15 percent it slightly trails the national rate. Twenty-two percent of this year’s 728 applicants are from abroad, part of an overall increase of almost 10 percent. Since 2007, the college has seen a 62 percent spike in international applicants.
International students, especially those from China, have long favored the United States for graduate studies. But they’ve typically flocked to programs such as engineering or medicine, where the skills they gain might be more globally applicable. The United States education system differs widely from that of mainland China (the systems in Hong Kong and Macau more closely resemble those of Western nations).
While scientific disciplines continue to enroll more international students, increased interest in studying education policy and in teaching English as a second language are driving international students (who must say they plan to return to their homelands after graduation in order to secure a visa) to pursue education degrees.
“There’s just been such a huge movement and so much happening between the two countries,” said Columbia’s Rock. “It’s enabling people to travel and study and consider opportunities that maybe they haven’t before.”