International Graduate Admissions Rise Steadily Even as Applications Slow

August 22, 2013

American graduate schools are showing continued interest in students from overseas, but there are signs the feelings aren't mutual.

A report released on Thursday by the Council of Graduate Schools says offers of admissions to international applicants grew at a steady pace of 9 percent from 2012 to 2013, making it the fourth consecutive year of growth.

Yet during the same time period, applications from overseas grew only 2 percent, much lower than in previous years. That slowdown is largely due to a 3-percent decline in applications from China, which sends the largest number of undergraduates and graduate students to the United States.

The council first noted the decline in a report released in April. In its latest report, it has revised some of the application figures slightly and provided new data on offers of admission, which are often good, though not perfect, predictors of final enrollment figures.

The findings are based on responses from 290 graduate schools that were surveyed in June and July. The respondents award a majority of the graduate degrees given to international students in the United States and include many of the country's largest graduate institutions.

'A Very Big Barrel'

Despite the drop in applications from China, offers of admission to Chinese students rose 5 percent. Debra W. Stewart, president of the council, said the disparity between the two figures does not necessarily mean that graduate schools have been forced to take less-qualified students because the pool of applicants from China is so large.

"It's an obvious thing to think: Oh, they must be digging deep into the barrel to fill classes," she said. "You have to understand this is a very big barrel, and the quality at the top of the barrel is very high."

However, she said that if the trend continued it could be a problem, especially given how much graduate schools rely on foreign students to fill seats in engineering and sciences courses.

In more positive news, she attributed the steady growth in offers of admission to a surprising surge in interest from India, which sends the second-largest number of students to American graduate schools. Applications grew 22 percent, and offers of admission rose 27 percent this year. In 2012 applications increased 3 percent, while offers remained stagnant.

"The real driver here is India," said Ms. Stewart. It's unclear what triggered the change, she said, noting that a variety of factors, such as local economies and student perceptions, could play a role. "The India market has always been volatile."

Offers of admission also grew to students from the Middle East and Brazil, 12 percent and 46 percent, respectively. Jeff Allum, the council's director of research and policy analysis, said government-scholarship programs in those places contributed to the increases. He cautioned, however, that the overall number of students from those places was small. Brazilian students, for example, make up 1 percent of the total number of offers to foreign students.

Offers to students from South Korea, the country that sends the third-largest number of students, continued a downward trend, falling 10 percent. Since 2010 the pace of offers has either been flat or declined. Applications from the country have shown similar stagnation.

Mr. Allum said he had anticipated those numbers would improve, but so far there has been no luck. "I always expected some kind of rebound, if you will, from South Korean students after the Great Recession in 2008, kind of like what we've been seeing from students in India," he said. "But that really hasn't happened."

How Members View the Changes

For the first time as part of its data collecting, the council asked some of its members to identify the causes behind changes in overseas applications. Among those that experienced large decreases, the reasons most often cited were increased competition, including from online programs and foreign institutions, and money problems, like the uncertainty of financial aid for prospective students. With those that reported an increase in applications, many cited new foreign-recruitment efforts as a factor.

Mr. Allum said the survey also offered "some contradictory results." For example, some institutions said a decision to make admissions deadlines earlier in the year had led to a decline in applications, while others said the same move had contributed to an increase.

The council will continue to examine the reasons behind the changes in applications in a report due this fall, which will include enrollment data, Mr. Allum said. But only time will tell whether the worrisome information about China portends something more serious.

Said Mr. Allum: "We'll see in the next year or two whether this is just an anomaly or if this is something more long-term and sustained."

Clarification (8/22/2013, 9:34 a.m.): The headline and summary on this article were changed to reflect the latest news from the Council of Graduate Schools.