U.S. Graduate Schools See Significant Increase in Foreign Enrollments

November 08, 2011

Enrollments of new international students at American graduate schools grew by 8 percent this fall, the strongest showing since 2006, according to a report released Tuesday by the Council of Graduate Schools. While the news is clearly good for American higher education, much of that growth came from a single country: China.

"Its been some time since we've seen gains of this magnitude," said Nathan E. Bell, director of research and policy analysis at the council. Yet, he cautions, "if the growth is all being driven by one country, that's probably not a healthy thing for U.S. graduate schools."

Each year the council surveys its 494 member institutions to determine what the international-student market looks like, measuring applications, admissions, and enrollments at various points throughout the year. This year, 237 of its member institutions responded to the fall survey on enrollments.

The findings this year make clear China's continued dominance in the United States. Last year China surpassed India as the top country sending students, with more than 127,600 Chinese enrolled in colleges and universities in the United States. Of those, about 66,000 were enrolled in graduate programs. This fall, according to the council's survey, enrollments of new Chinese graduate students grew 21 percent, continuing several years of double-digit growth.

The number of students from the Middle East and Turkey rose 14 percent, reflecting steady growth from the region. although the overall numbers are relatively small.

Indian enrollments grew only 2 percent, but that was an improvement over several years of shrinking numbers. Similarly, enrollments from South Korea, the third-largest sending country, were flat, which was relatively good news as they follow several years of decline.

Total international-student enrollments grew by just 2 percent over last year, reflecting the slower or flat growth of recent years.

A variety of factors affect international enrollments, including home-country capacity to absorb students, quality of the home country's institutions, and families' ability to pay. Such figures are also closely watched in the United States as foreign students account for about 15 percent of all enrollments in graduate programs.

While China's enrollment growth closely mirrored an earlier council survey measuring admissions offers, enrollments of Indian students grew much less than their offers of admission, which rose 8 percent.

Mr. Bell saw as a positive sign that in two parts of the world where families have both the demand and the means for an international education, China and the Middle East, they continued to turn to the United States in great numbers. "International students have always recognized and continue to recognize the quality of U.S. graduate schools," he said. Still, he added, "we can't rest on our laurels. If we want to continue to attract the best and the brightest, it takes work."

The 8 percent growth in first-year students is a marked improvement for American graduate schools, which have been fighting against a sluggish U.S. economy and a global economic downturn. In the fall of 2010, first-time enrollments grew only 3 percent over the previous year, while in 2009, when the recession's impact was first felt, there was no increase over 2008. This year's growth marks the highest rate of increase since the fall of 2006, when graduate schools experienced a 12-percent rise over the previous year.

The institutions enrolling the largest number of graduate students saw greater rates of increase than other schools, furthering a concentration of international students. Mr. Bell noted that just 100 institutions enroll 60 percent of all international graduate students.