Admissions Offers to Foreign Students at U.S. Graduate Schools Climb at Faster Pace

August 16, 2011

Offers of admission to international students by American graduate schools grew this year at the fastest clip in five years, climbing 11 percent over last year, according to a report released today by the Council of Graduate Schools. That's the steepest one-year increase since the fall of 2006, when foreign-student numbers were recovering from a sharp dip following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Much of that growth is fueled by a 23-percent expansion in offers of admission to prospective students from China, the sixth consecutive year of double-digit gains.

Admissions offers to students from India also jumped, by 8 percent, the first uptick in prospective students from that country since fall of 2007. India trails only China as the largest source of international students to the United States.

Offers of admission to students from South Korea, however, remained flat, compared to 2010, after four years in a row of declines.

Together, those three countries account for half of all non-U.S. citizens on student visas at American graduate schools.

Offers to students from the Middle East and Turkey also rose, by 16 percent over 2010. The council tracks students collectively from that region because of its geopolitical importance.

The report, which is based on responses to a survey sent to 494 universities, also revised upward the growth in overseas applications from initial figures released earlier this year, from 9 percent to 11 percent.

Chronicle of Higher Education

Foreign students comprise about 15 percent of all enrollments in graduate programs in the United States, and the rise in overseas admissions offers was welcomed on American campuses. "It is people voting with their feet and with their pocketbooks," said Patrick S. Osmer, chair of the council's Board of Directors.

Nathan E. Bell, director of research and policy analysis at the graduate-schools group, said the findings suggest that American institutions will "almost certainly" see an increase in overseas enrollments this fall. Enrollment statistics typically track within a couple of percentage points of offers of admission.

The admissions report follows on the heels of news that student-visa applications from India are up significantly.

Offers of admission to Indian students had fallen in recent years, declining 5 percent in 2010 and 14 percent in 2009. Karen L. Butler-Purry, associate vice president for graduate studies at Texas A&M University, said Indian-student enrollments at her institution had dropped after the university eliminated tuition benefits for many master's-degree students, as part of broader belt-tightening. Indian students are heavily represented in master's-level programs, at Texas A&M and elsewhere.

While interest from India appears to be resurgent, the rise is dwarfed by numbers from China, where the robust growth seen over the past several years shows no signs of slowing. This fall's 23 percent increase in admissions offers follows increases of 15 percent in 2010 and 17 percent in 2009. 

 Still, Mr. Bell, the author of the admissions report, cautions that such enormous expansions are unlikely to continue in the long term. "Right now, China can't keep up with the demand for graduate education," he said. But as the country builds more and better universities, he said, some students who now enroll in American graduate programs will elect to stay home.

"We can't maintain large, double-digit increases forever," Mr. Bell said. "It's not sustainable."

Mr. Bell noted that country-specific enrollment trends frequently are reflective of conditions within certain countries, like higher-education capacity, as well as economic health and the value of the national currency.

However, Mr. Osmer, who is vice provost of graduate studies and dean of the graduate school at Ohio State University, said his institution is also trying to take a more strategic approach to the often-decentralized process of graduate-student recruitment. For one, Ohio State is trying to use its research partnerships overseas to build stronger pipelines for student recruitment, he said.

Admissions offers grew especially vigorously at institutions like Ohio State that enroll large numbers of foreign graduate students. At the 10 graduate schools that award the largest number of degrees to international students, offers rose 13 percent, and they climbed 12 percent at the 100 largest. Those outside the 100 largest saw a 10-percent increase, on average.

Increases in international offers of admission occurred in all broad fields of study in 2011, with the largest growth in programs in business, at 16 percent, and in physical and earth sciences, at 15 percent.

A total of 241 institutions responded to the survey, which was conducted in June and July. The responding universities account for about two-thirds of the 96,000 graduate degrees conferred to international students in the 2008-9 academic year.