• September 3, 2014

U.S. Graduate Schools Wonder if India Is Their New Engine of Enrollment Growth

International graduate-student trends appear to have hit a reset.

For the second year in a row, applications to American graduate schools from India skyrocketed, while those from prospective Chinese students fell.

The findings, from a report released on Thursday by the Council of Graduate Schools, turn the trend line of recent years on its head. For the better part of a decade, Chinese graduate applications—and enrollments—have climbed upward, regularly and robustly. With double-digit annual growth, Chinese students have come to account for fully one-third of all foreign graduate students on American campuses, and their presence has helped offset flat—or in some disciplines, even declining—interest in graduate education among domestic students.

Dismissed by some observers a year ago as an aberration, the cooling of the Chinese market no longer can be written off as a one-year blip. Applications from prospective Chinese students for this fall dipped 1 percent, following a 3-percent drop a year earlier. (The data are preliminary, but final enrollments tend to closely track application trends.)

Indeed, the number of overall international applications, up 7 percent, probably would have declined, too, except for eye-popping growth, of 32 percent, from India.

"It’s all India," said Debra W. Stewart, the council’s president. "India is huge."

It might be tempting to anoint India as the next China, the new engine of the international graduate-student market. After all, in 2013, Indian applications increased 22 percent and enrollments were up a whopping 40 percent.

But to do so might be premature—and misguided.

Cause and Effect?

China and India may be the No. 1 and No. 2 sources of foreign students in the United States, but they are in many ways very different markets.

While the growth from China has been consistent, Indian numbers have been erratic. One year, first-time graduate enrollments climbed more than 30 percent, only to plummet 16 percent a couple of years later.

That seeming fickleness reflects the fact that education decisions in India tend to be highly susceptible to economic shifts, including fluctuating currency exchange rates and employment prospects, both at home and abroad. A significant share of Indian graduate students enroll in master’s- and professional-degree programs and thus often have to cover much of the tuition costs themselves.

The current application growth, however, comes as the Indian rupee has generally fallen in value against the dollar, suggesting that other factors may be in play. Ms. Stewart, of the council, cited tightening student-visa rules in Britain. A recent report found that the number of first-time students at English universities from India and Pakistan had halved since 2010, and some of those students, Ms. Stewart suggested, could have opted to apply to institutions in the United States instead.

"It’s very difficult to trace cause and effect," she said, "but it seems that we’re at least the short-term beneficiaries."

Whether the British visa rules lead to a long-term swing in Indian-student choices is another matter. Australia, for example, saw a fall-off in foreign students after the government there put in place a more restrictive visa policy following attacks on Indian students in 2009. But international numbers in Australia have since rebounded—last year, they were up 8 percent.

And Ms. Stewart said she worries that unless American lawmakers reform the visa system to make it easier for international students to stay and work after graduation, the United States could lose whatever edge it may have.

Debate in China

By contrast, the Chinese slowdown could reflect more-permanent changes. China has been spending big to improve its own research universities, a move that could persuade promising doctoral students to stay at home. American universities, meanwhile, have had to absorb cuts in research funding.

As more Chinese students, both graduate students and undergraduates, go to the United States and other Western countries to study, there also is a growing debate in China about the value of an overseas degree. One of China’s richest men recently suggested that his daughter had learned little studying abroad.

While there is not yet evidence that undergraduate enrollments from China are falling off, American colleges, which have come to rely heavily on full-fee-paying Chinese undergraduates to offset budget cuts, are likely to be watching closely to see if the council’s numbers are a bellwether of broader declines.

Still, some educators see positives in the shifting application trends. John A. Stevenson, graduate dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he welcomed greater diversity in the foreign-applicant pool. "I kind of like the numbers because they suggest we’re not becoming overly reliant on any one country for our graduate students," he said.

Over all, applications from overseas rose 7 percent, according to the council’s new report. Aside from India, applications from Brazil, which accounts for about 1 percent of foreign graduate students, were also up significantly, by 33 percent. Applications from South Korea, which ranks behind China and India as the third-largest source of international students, dropped again, by 5 percent.

The most popular fields of study among international students—engineering, business, and physical and earth sciences (which include computer science and mathematics)—saw the largest gains in applications. Likewise, application increases were greatest at the institutions that award the most graduate degrees to foreign students.

The report is based on a survey conducted in February and March of the graduate-school council’s 509 American members. The 308 responding institutions account for 67 percent of the approximately 109,000 graduate degrees awarded to international students in 2011-12.

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