In a sudden role reversal, the number of Indian students entering American graduate schools this fall exploded, while the share of new graduate students from China increased only modestly.
First-time graduate enrollments from India, which had stagnated in recent years, surged 40 percent, according to a report out Tuesday on international graduate-student trends. But after seven consecutive years of double-digit growth, the number of Chinese students beginning graduate programs in the United States was up just 5 percent.
Those unexpected results left even the president of the group that produced the report, the Council of Graduate Schools, scratching her head. "There are just big question marks about what are driving these numbers," Debra W. Stewart said.
Although Ms. Stewart cautioned that "one data point does not a trend make," the apparent softening in the Chinese market could be cause for concern for American graduate programs, which have relied on steady, vigorous growth from China, the largest sending country, to offset weak domestic enrollments, particularly in the sciences and engineering.
Indeed, without the flood of new students from India, the second-largest source of foreign students, overall international enrollments would have crept up only slightly. Instead, the number of first-time graduate students from overseas climbed a healthy 10 percent.
'The Sky Isn't Falling'
The rise in Indian enrollments outpaced even the sizable growth, of 30 percent, in offers of admission to prospective Indian students earlier this year.
But while graduate-school deans welcomed that news, their reaction was tempered. Unlike Chinese enrollments, which have been reliably robust, those from India have been volatile, climbing during one admission cycle only to plunge a year later.
Because a significant portion of Indian graduate students are in master's- and professional-degree programs, they usually foot much of the cost. For that reason, Indian students tend to be especially sensitive to changing economic circumstances and job prospects.
In fact, with the Indian rupee falling sharply in value, some observers had speculated that the number of Indian graduate students able to afford to study in the United States might actually dip this fall.
Although Chinese students continue to enroll in large numbers, the deceleration is worrisome to educators who have come to rely on substantial growth from China, year in and year out. Chinese nationals account for more than a third of all foreign students in American graduate schools, according to the council.
Without that influx, new graduate-school enrollments wouldn't have mustered the small increase, of 1.8 percent, they experienced in the fall of 2012. The foreign-student impact is even more significant in certain science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, where first-time enrollments of American citizens and permanent residents were flat or down in 2012.
The slowdown from China could reverberate throughout universities, where undergraduate growth from China has outpaced even that on the graduate level. (That said, graduate and undergraduate enrollments tend to have very different drivers.)
Ms. Stewart called the shift in Chinese enrollment trends "dramatic," adding, "I don't want to cry that the sky is falling because the sky isn't falling until we have more data."
One reason for slowing Chinese growth could be the slackening economy and tightening employment market there. With jobs already hard to find, students may hesitate to pursue a graduate degree, especially a costly one abroad.
But another factor in the diverging Chinese and Indian numbers could be the courses of study those students pursue. A larger share of Chinese students enroll in doctoral programs. With research funds squeezed by the federal-government sequester, as well as the earlier economic recession, many universities have less money available to support the stipends on which doctoral students rely.
With the budgetary uncertainty, Karen L. Butler-Purry, associate provost for graduate studies at Texas A&M University at College Station, said it's only prudent to be cautious in admitting more Ph.D. students. "We're really in wait-and-see mode," she said. "We don't want to bring someone here that we can't fund for the lifetime of their degree."
By contrast, the number of first-time Indian graduate students at Texas A&M soared by about 30 percent this fall, Ms. Butler-Purry said, with a majority enrolled in master's-degree programs in engineering. The university, she said, has more capacity to take in students in programs not focused on research.
Aside from India, the other country with significant enrollment increases was Brazil, where the number of entering graduate students shot up 17 percent. The Brazilian government is underwriting a large-scale scholarship program to send students abroad, particularly in the sciences.
However, the number of new students from South Korea, which ranks behind China and India as the third-largest source of foreign students, declined by 12 percent, the continuation of a downward trend. More Koreans may be electing to stay home as the quality of research institutions in that country improves.
International enrollments were up in every broad academic field except the life sciences. Two of the most popular fields, engineering and physical and earth sciences (which include mathematics and computer science), experienced especially strong growth.
Total enrollment of international students in American graduate schools increased 7 percent from 2012 to 2013, the eighth consecutive year of growth.
The report is based on a survey conducted in September and October of the graduate-school council's 513 American members. The responding institutions accounted for 66 percent of the approximately 103,000 degrees awarded to international graduate students.