In 'Disturbing' Reversal, Chinese Applications Fall at U.S. Graduate Schools

April 08, 2013

The Chinese aren't coming as they used to. Not to American graduate schools, anyway.

After seven consecutive years of double-digit increases, the number of Chinese applications to graduate programs in the United States this spring fell an unexpected 5 percent.

"Disturbing" and "precipitous" is how Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, characterized the dip in Chinese applicants. "This is a post-9/11 kind of drop," Ms. Stewart said, referring to the steep declines in international students following the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Over all, international graduate applications did rise, but by an anemic 1 percent, the smallest growth in eight years, according to a report issued on Monday by the council.

While the data are preliminary, in the past the final enrollment picture has hewed quite closely, typically within 1 percent, to trends initially reported in the application phase.

That is potentially troubling news for graduate schools, which have relied on robust increases in foreign-student numbers, particularly in disciplines like engineering and the sciences, to offset weakening domestic enrollments. Even with the surge in students from abroad, total first-time enrollments in American graduate programs have decreased for the past two years.

The figures also will be closely scrutinized by the many American universities that have come to rely on the even-larger growth in Chinese undergraduates to plug budgetary holes and to diversify their student bodies. Although graduate and undergraduate enrollments tend to be influenced by very different factors, any sign that the wave of Chinese students is cresting could be worrisome for college administrators.

20% Increase From India

According to the report, graduate applications from overseas this year surely would have fallen into negative territory but for a 20-percent increase in applications from India, the second-largest sending country, behind China.

Indian families, however, tend to be price-sensitive, their education decisions subject to economic fluctuations and employment prospects, both at home and abroad. Consequently, their enrollment trend line has been a series of peaks, valleys, and plateaus—in one recent year, for instance, the number of applications from India exploded by 23 percent, only to plummet by nearly 10 percent two years later. Even though Indian applications are rolling in now, it's hard to predict what will happen next year, Ms. Stewart said.

Chinese numbers, by contrast, have skyrocketed, increasing by about 18 percent a year, on average, for the past eight years. Just a year ago, Chinese students accounted for half of all foreign applicants to American graduate schools; they make up one-third of all those enrolled.

Indeed, Chinese growth has been so constant that Ms. Stewart disbelieved the numbers when they began coming in. (The council surveyed its 507 American members from late January to March; the responding institutions account for some 64 percent of the 103,000 graduate degrees awarded to international students.) But after double-checking the figures and querying individual universities about their applicant pools, it became clear: Chinese applications are down, and in a major way.

What's not so evident is why. After all, the number of Chinese students who took the GRE swelled 30 percent in 2012, according to the Educational Testing Service, which administers the graduate-school entrance examination.

While China's white-hot economic growth has cooled recently, its economy remains reasonably healthy. And besides, most Chinese graduate students enroll in doctoral programs and thus typically don't have to foot the bill for their studies. Similarly, there has been increasing debate in China about the value of a college degree, but the dissatisfaction has mainly been at the undergraduate and vocational level, where recent graduates have struggled to find jobs that match their education.

China has invested heavily in its university and research infrastructure in recent years, giving its students more options on where to enroll. And the United States faces other competition for top international students; Germany, for instance, has been generous in supporting scholarships for foreign students, even during the recession.

No Explanation

None of those explanations, though, seems to account for such a seismic shift in Chinese applicants in just one year.

Ms. Stewart doubts those factors by themselves led to the downturn, in part because China was not alone in its declines. Including China, four of the top five sending countries saw drops in applications.

Slowing growth or outright decreases also were common across institutions and academic programs: While applications were up slightly, by 3 percent, at public universities, they dipped by 4 percent at private institutions.

What had been rapid growth in the majors most popular with international students—business, engineering, and physical and earth sciences—sputtered. Universities that generally enroll the most graduate students saw a modest uptick, of 1 percent, in applications; they were stagnant at those institutions outside the 100 largest.

Only institutions focused on master's degrees received significantly more applications, up 18 percent.

Because the decreases were widespread, Ms. Stewart argued that they were a response to what's happening in higher education in America, namely reductions in the amount of money available to support graduate students. Cuts in research funds, a result of the federal government's budget sequester, could exacerbate earlier ones made during the recession.

Like Ms. Stewart, Lisa A. Tedesco, dean of the graduate school at Emory University, worries that decisions by policy makers in the United States—such as visa restrictions that make it hard for foreign graduates, even those in high-demand fields, to remain in the country—could be tamping down interest from abroad.

"What is the impact on the scientific work force? What does it mean for competition and innovation?" Ms. Tedesco asked, adding, "Our students need to live and work in a global context. If there are fewer international graduate students, will they lose that opportunity?"