Graduate Students

Influx of Foreign Students Drives Modest Increase in Graduate-School Enrollments

David L Ryan, The Boston Globe via Getty Images

People are still applying to graduate schools in large numbers, the Council of Graduate Schools survey shows. Above, several new Ph.D.'s celebrated at the commencement of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in May. From left are Clara Masnatta, Scarlet Marquette, and Greta Pane.
September 12, 2013

Enrollments in graduate programs at American colleges and universities have increased modestly, driven largely by a rise in international students, according to a report being released on Thursday by the Council of Graduate Schools.

From the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2012, first-time enrollment in graduate certificate, education-specialist, master's, and doctoral programs increased by 1.8 percent, to more than 461,000 students, reversing two consecutive years of declines, says the report, "Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2002 to 2012." About 58 percent of all first-time graduate students were women.

The number of international students in American graduate programs went up by 8 percent from the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2012, up slightly from the 7.8-percent increase in the previous year. By contrast, first-time graduate enrollment increased by only 0.6 percent for U.S. citizens and permanent residents over the same period.

First-time enrollments of U.S. citizens and permanent residents was flat or down from the previous year in a number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. And total enrollment, counting both new and returning students, in graduate programs fell by more than 2 percent, to nearly 1.74 million students, in the fall of 2012, following a decline of 0.8 percent the year before.

Despite the challenges of a slowly recovering economy and a tough job market, people are still applying to graduate schools in large numbers. The 675 institutions that responded to the council's annual survey reported receiving nearly two million applications for admission to graduate programs for the fall of 2012.

Applications rose almost 4 percent from the year before, but the overall acceptance rate was slightly lower than in the previous year. Among applications for the fall of 2012, 39.5 percent resulted in offers, compared with more than 40 percent of applications for the fall of 2011. The fields of education, business, and health sciences enrolled the most first-time graduate students, constituting just under half of all first-time students enrolled in the fall of 2012.

Positive and Negative Trends

It is good news that international-student enrollments are trending upward, said Debra W. Stewart, the council's president. But an increase of less than 1 percent in domestic students is worrisome, she added, given that the American economy will have an increasing need for highly skilled workers. The U.S. Department of Labor has forecast a 22-percent rise in jobs requiring at least a master's degree from 2010 to 2020, and a 20-percent rise for jobs requiring doctorates.

"We have strong increases for international students, which is good because if we didn't have strong enrollment from abroad, some graduate programs would be faltering," Ms. Stewart said. "But there are some particular concerns about where declines continue to persist for U.S. students. We are seeing a widening gap between U.S. and international first-time enrollments in engineering, math, and computer science."

In the fall of 2012, more than half—54.7 percent—of all graduate students who are categorized as temporary U.S. residents were enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, compared with 17.3 percent of U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

"Fewer qualified applicants are choosing to enroll in critical fields like engineering, math and computer science," Ms. Stewart said. "We have to try to understand why that's happening and what we can do to reverse it."

Barbara A. Knuth, vice provost and dean of the graduate school at Cornell University, said there were benefits to the internationalization of American higher education. But the trend is worrisome, she added, if immigration restrictions are not changed to allow more international students to stay in the United States and contribute to the economy.

Out of 1,820 new graduate students who enrolled at Cornell in the fall of 2012, 872 were international students, Ms. Knuth said. "We're getting close to the point where we may have a 50-50 split," she added, between American and international students.

In the national data, students from American minority groups also were drivers of the increase in new enrollments. Hispanic enrollments increased by 7.4 percent, American Indian and Alaska Native enrollments grew by 5.7 percent, and black enrollments rose by 4.6 percent. White enrollments, meanwhile, fell by 0.9 percent.

That more underrepresented groups are attending graduate school is a positive sign, said Ms. Knuth.

"This is a good thing, especially if you look at the changing demographics of the country," she said. "We have needed and wanted more participation from minorities. Many institutions have been working hard to increase their numbers, and now we are seeing signs that many of those efforts have been working."

Student Loans and Sequestration

Ms. Stewart and several graduate deans said that universities were still feeling the effects of the recent recession and the automatic governmentwide spending cuts, known as sequestration, that took effect in March, and that those financial factors were contributing to the limited enrollment increases. The deans said that programs in many places are limiting the number of new students they enroll and, in some cases, are eliminating programs.

Recent changes in federal student-loan policy also are making some students increasingly leery about taking on large amounts of debt to pursue advanced degrees.

As of July 2012, students who took out new federal loans for advanced degrees no longer qualified for the in-school interest subsidy on Stafford loans. That means they have had to start paying the interest on their loans while they are enrolled or let it build up, adding to their debt.

Changes in how interest rates are set on federal student loans could also make loans for graduate education more costly in the future. Legislation enacted in July moved the rates to a market-based system from a fixed rate. That will mean lower rates at first—5.4 percent for graduate students this year. But many of the millions of graduate students who rely on federal Stafford loans fear that, as the economy improves, the loan rates will rise to the cap of 9.5 percent, adding to their debt.

The toll sequestration took on the budgets of federal agencies that support academic research has also sapped resources for graduate study, leaving fewer dollars for grants and stipends.

"We are all concerned about the sequester," Ms. Knuth said. "Faculty have said they couldn't support the same number of students under their grants. Some people don't realize that there are different phases to the sequester. It will get worse."

James C. Wimbush, dean of the graduate school at Indiana University at Bloomington, said there had been a slight dip in graduate enrollment at his institution. Most of the declines have been in the humanities and education, while the social sciences and the physical sciences continue to do well.

"People are feeling weary about going to grad school, given the nature of the economy," Mr. Wimbush said. "Students are reading stories about rising student debt. They are hearing from people with degrees who didn't get the jobs they hoped for. All of these factors come together to weigh on people's decision making about returning to graduate school."

Ms. Stewart remained cautiously optimistic.

"Universities are resilient," she said. "It's a testament to the American university's agility that they have been able to respond to sequestration cuts and high levels of uncertainty about the future, but it is not a reasonable way to proceed from the point of view of the country if you want to ensure that you will have the talent you need going forward."