For International Students Enrolling in Graduate Schools, Master’s Programs Rule

December 17, 2015

A group of graduate students at Santa Clara U. study in the engineering school’s Murphy Hall. Nearly two-thirds of Santa Clara’s international students are from India, and almost all of them are pursuing master’s degrees.
The number of foreign students enrolling in American graduate schools rose this fall, but, at 5 percent, the rate of growth was "considerably slower" than in recent years, according to a new report from the Council of Graduate Schools.

An uptick in first-time students from China and India largely fueled the increase — not exactly a surprise, since the two countries accounted for nearly eight of every 10 graduate applications from abroad.

Beyond those topline findings, however, the report contains some noteworthy information: For the first time since the council began conducting its international-enrollment survey more than a decade ago, it has broken out the data by degree level, allowing for a new, and more nuanced, look at foreign graduate-student trends. It shows that the great majority of first-time international students, more than three-quarters, are pursuing master’s degrees or graduate certificates.

That figure largely tracks the overall graduate population at American colleges, where 83 percent of all incoming students last year enrolled in master’s or certificate programs.

But the researchers found significant variability in the degree pursued depending on students’ home country, and that information could prove valuable to colleges seeking to better target their overseas recruiting or to craft new graduate programs to appeal to an overseas audience, international-education experts say.

"We were always lumping them together," Rahul Choudaha, an expert on global-student mobility, says of master’s and doctoral programs, "and they’re so different in their motivations, in their barriers."

More than 90 percent of students from India, for example, are in master’s or certificate programs. On the other end of the spectrum, graduate enrollments from South Korea are nearly evenly divided between the master’s and doctoral level.

China, meanwhile, precisely mirrors overall international-enrollment patterns, with about 75 percent of its students opting for master’s programs. The top exporter of foreign students, it accounts for one-third of all international enrollments at both the master’s and doctoral level.

South Korea has a well-developed economy and higher-education system, so students and families there may not see a need to go to the United States for a master’s degree, Mr. Choudaha says. Those students who come at the doctoral level may be seeking a specialized degree or to train under a prominent professor.

India, by contrast, has a still-maturing economy, and its universities have the capacity to educate only a fraction of its young population. The fact that its students are so concentrated at the master’s level suggests that, for "Indian students and employers, a U.S. degree and work experience has real appeal," says Hironao Okahana, director of statistical analysis and policy research at the council and one of the report’s authors. (He adds that a draw for many Indian students is a federal program that allows foreign graduates to work in the United States for 12 to 29 months after they earn their degrees.)

On her way into work at Santa Clara University, where she’s associate provost for international programs, Susan M. Popko passes a theater that plays Bollywood films, catering to the tastes of Silicon Valley’s large South Asian population. Reflecting that demographic, nearly two-thirds of Santa Clara’s international students are from India and almost all of them are pursuing master’s degrees — and most hope to find jobs in the tech industry. Working at the university, Ms. Popko says, is like having a "front-seat view of global workplace trends."

But if Indian enrollments are, as Mr. Okahana notes, "highly responsive to the labor market," then they can also take a hit when unemployment rises, in India or the United States, or when the economy falters. This is the third year of double-digit increases from India, but previously enrollments had fallen, hurt by the recession and fluctuating currency-exchange rates.

After the recession hit, many American colleges actively sought to recruit more international students who, at the master’s level, typically pay their own way. Some were filling seats vacated by Americans who could no longer afford tuition costs, but in other cases, Mr. Choudaha says, institutions developed professionally oriented graduate programs in popular majors like business and engineering specifically to appeal to students from overseas. Some have experimented with hybrid online models that may appeal to an international audience.

With so many students seeking an advanced degree for career reasons, making certain the programs meet job needs will be especially critical to stability in foreign enrollments, Mr. Choudaha says. "These students want to know," he says, "what will give me the best return?"

Karin Fischer writes about international education, colleges and the economy, and other issues. She’s on Twitter @karinfischer, and her email address is