Foreign-Student Applications Rise 7% at American Graduate Schools

April 06, 2010

Applications by international students to American graduate schools are up 7 percent over last year, reversing a three-year trend of slowing growth in overseas applicants, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Council of Graduate Schools.

The admissions data in the report are welcome news after first-time enrollments of foreign students were flat last fall, raising questions about the reliance of American universities on international talent at the graduate level.

But while the report's author calls the figures "an encouraging sign," he cautioned that admissions data often are not a strong indicator of enrollment trends. Last year applications were up 4 percent, but enrollments remained unchanged, said Nathan E. Bell, director of research and policy analysis at the Council of Graduate Schools.

"In this survey, we're counting applications, pieces of paper," Mr. Bell said, "not actual students who enroll."

A variety of factors could influence enrollments, Mr. Bell said, including continuing worldwide economic turmoil, the impact of the downturn on the availability of financial aid, growing competition from other countries, and increased capacity for graduate education in students' home countries. What's more, Mr. Bell pointed out, the rise in applications could mean more international-student interest—or it could simply reflect a smaller group of prospective students' submitting applications to more universities.

This is the fifth year in a row that international applications to American graduate schools have gone up, although in recent years the rate of growth has slowed. The report did not track trends in domestic-student applications.

Jeffery C. Gibeling, dean of graduate studies at the University of California at Davis, said he was less worried about year-to-year fluctuations in applications and more concerned about longer-term trends in international enrollments.

Mr. Gibeling—who says his university saw a 3-percent increase in applications from abroad and 14-percent growth in those from potential domestic students—is a member of a commission convened by the council on the future of graduate education. The group is expected to make recommendations about what steps universities, industries, and state and federal governments can take to raise both international and domestic enrollments in a report later this month.

Indian Numbers Stabilize

As in past years, American universities saw explosive growth in the number of applications from Chinese students, up 19 percent over last year.

Meanwhile, applications from India and South Korea appear to have stabilized after sharp declines last year. Applications from India fell 2 percent in 2010, following a 12-percent drop in 2008. Applications from prospective students in South Korea remained flat this year, after plummeting 9 percent the previous year.

The three countries are the largest sources of overseas students for American universities.

Applications from the Middle East and Turkey rose 18 percent over 2009. The council tracks students from the region because of its geopolitical importance.

Applications increased for the three most popular fields of study among international students—business, engineering, and physical and earth sciences (which includes mathematics and computer science).

Application growth was concentrated at institutions that already have the most international graduate enrollments. At the 25 graduate schools with the largest foreign-student populations, applications rose 10 percent, but those outside the 100 largest saw only a 4-percent increase, on average.

The council's report is based on responses from 240 institutions surveyed from January to March. Of the responding universities, 59 percent saw an increase in international applicants, 39 percent experienced a decrease, and 3 percent reported no change.

About half of the Council of Graduate Schools' member universities responded, but they enroll 64 percent of the international graduate students in the United States.

Because the survey was administered early in the graduate-admissions cycle, its results should be considered preliminary and subject to slight revision when a second survey looks at final application numbers later this spring, the report says.

And the report notes that there is "no guarantee" that the growth in applications will result in a corresponding increase in enrollments.

An examination of four years of data suggests no "clear-cut relationship" between applications and first-time enrollments, according to the report. In 2007 and 2008, the increases in international applications were about twice as large as the subsequent increases in first-time foreign-student enrollments, while in 2006, both applications and enrollments grew by 12 percent.