Foreign Enrollment in U.S. Graduate Schools Remains Flat, Survey Finds

November 10, 2009

The number of international students enrolling for the first time this fall at American graduate schools was unchanged since last year, raising fresh questions about the reliance of U.S. institutions on foreign talent at the graduate level.

Over all, international-student enrollment was up 2 percent, the smallest increase since 2006, according to the results of a survey released on Tuesday by the Council of Graduate Schools. Meanwhile, first-time enrollment in American graduate schools by domestic students jumped 6 percent.

The plateauing this fall of first-time international enrollments followed several years of slowing growth and reflected double-digit declines in the number of new Indian and South Korean students pursuing American graduate degrees. The countries are two of the three largest sources of overseas students.

"The question is," said Debra W. Stewart, the council's president, "the extent to which we can continue to rely on international students to feed our graduate schools.

"This report," she continued, "highlights ever more seriously the need to develop domestic talent."

A Year 'Like No Other'

Stagnation in international enrollment could have an outsize impact on graduate programs, said Nathan E. Bell, director of research and policy analysis at the council and author of a report on the survey. Foreign students made up 16 percent of graduate enrollments at the institutions responding to the council's fall 2008 survey and account for a far higher share at some institutions and in certain degree programs.

Several factors could lie behind the standstill in new enrollments, Mr. Bell said. For one, the global recession could be affecting both students' ability to pay for college and the financial assistance universities can provide. Foreign students must demonstrate that they have the money to pay for college in order to secure an American-student visa.

Maureen Grasso, dean of the University of Georgia's Graduate School, said budget cuts had reduced the number of graduate assistantships available, and some students had struggled to secure loans. "This year has been like no other in graduate education," she said.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Steven W. Matson, dean of the Graduate School, said he hoped this year's 14-percent drop in international first-time enrollments would be a one-time event. Academic departments were especially careful in making admissions decisions in the current budgetary environment, he said.

"To a certain extent, we overcorrected this year," he said, noting that international applications at Chapel Hill had not declined.

But slackening enrollment numbers also could herald longer-term, more-systemic forces, such as growing competition from other countries, increased capacity for graduate education in students' home countries, and U.S. policies that may deter students from studying in this country. A commission convened by the council on the future of graduate education will examine the likely causes, as well as steps universities might take to raise both international and domestic enrollments, Mr. Bell said.

Chinese Enrollments Are Up

Still, the report is not entirely gloomy. Data on offers of admission have been revised upward from an earlier survey, in August; they fell by 1 percent, not 3 percent, as earlier estimated. That was the first decline in international offers of admission since 2004.

And enrollment of students from China, which ranks behind India as the second-largest sending country, actually increased. First-time enrollments from China rose by 16 percent, and total graduate enrollments from China are up 12 percent.

Enrollments from the Middle East and Turkey also swelled, by 22 percent among first-time students and 13 percent over all.

But the total number of Indian students studying in American graduate programs fell by 4 percent, while new enrollments dropped more sharply, by 16 percent. First-time South Korean students dipped by 13 percent, while overall Korean numbers declined for the second year in a row, by 5 percent. Collectively, the two countries, along with China, account for half of all international students studying at American graduate schools.

The Council of Graduate Schools' survey also found significant differences between institutions. Universities that typically enroll the most graduate students continued to attract international students; enrollments among the 10 institutions with the most foreign students climbed 7 percent. However, enrollment at the 100 universities with the largest foreign-student enrollments was flat, while those outside the top 100 saw a decline of 1 percent.

First-time international graduate enrollment at doctoral institutions was level and fell by 5 percent at master's-focused universities.

Enrollment by field varied as well. First-time enrollment dropped by 4 percent in physical and earth sciences, one of the three largest fields for international students, and remained flat for the other two, business and engineering. (Physical and earth sciences includes mathematics and computer science.)

The survey. which was conducted from September 3 to October 23, also queried universities about their enrollment of American citizens and permanent residents, finding first-time attendance rose by 6 percent. Sixty-eight percent of institutions reported more first-time domestic students, while 32 percent experienced a decrease. A significant factor in the growth of American student numbers was likely to be the economy, Mr. Bell said.

Although domestic-student enrollment expanded, Mr. Bell said, American students were generally not taking slots international students would otherwise fill. While most international students pursue doctorates, most new American students are enrolled in master's-degree programs.

A total of 257 institutions responded to the survey, for a final response rate of 51 percent. The report, "Findings From the 2009 CGS International Graduate Admissions Survey: Phase III: Final Offers of Admission and Enrollment," in on the council's Web site.