Shifts in Foreign Grad Population in U.S.

November 12, 2014
By Scott Jaschik


The enrollment of new graduate students from outside the United States is up 8 percent this year at American graduate programs, according to data being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools. That's down slightly from a 10 percent gain a year ago, but the same increase of the prior two years before that.

While the overall growth rate is strong, there was a slight (1 percent) drop in the enrollment of new students from China this fall, compared to a year ago. China is the top provider of international students to the United States. Enrollments from South Korea and Taiwan were also down. India had the second year of large increases, and Brazil's numbers (though building from a relative small base) are way up.

The figures are based on a Council of Graduate Schools survey of its members. While the survey collects information about many levels of graduate enrollments, first-time enrollment is considered crucial. Since most graduate programs are for multiple years, first-time figures will have an impact on enrollments well into the future.

The following table shows just how dramatic the shifts have been from different countries in recent years. (The council did not do breakouts for all countries a few years ago, so data are provided only when available.)

1-Year Changes in First-Times International Graduate Enrollment in U.S., by Country of Origin

Country 2010 to 2011 2011 to 2012 2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014
China +21% +22% +5% -1%
India +2% +1% +40% +27%
South Korea +0% -2% -12% -7%
Taiwan n/a -2% -8% -8%
Canada n/a +4% +3% -1%
Mexico n/a +5% -2% +8%
Brazil n/a +14% +17% +91%

Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, in an interview cautioned "against overreacting" to the decline from China. She noted that the overall growth means that American graduate programs are seeing a "diversification of enrollments," which she said was positive. "U.S. programs should not depend on enrollments of students from any one country," she said.

Ortega noted that China has been investing more in graduate education, and has been offering financial incentives for students to seek graduate degrees there. India is different, she said. "The infrastructure of graduate education in India is not yet at a point where it can attract and support all of the Indian students who have the ambition and talent to pursue advanced degrees," she said.

At the same time, she said, there are factors in the United States that could limit future growth of international enrollments generally and may already be having a negative impact in Chinese enrollments.

Ortega spoke of the "disinvestment in research and graduate education in the U.S." She said that with state and federal governments cutting spending, some American universities "can’t offer multiyear funding packages to graduate students upfront." Over the long run, she said, "the result is that we may see fewer top Chinese students in U.S. graduate programs."

The council's study also looks at changes reported by graduate schools in the enrollment of new students by fields of study.

Here, science and technology fields -- and especially the physical and earth sciences (a category that in this study includes mathematics and computer science) -- were stronger than other fields.

1-Year Changes in First-Times International Graduate Enrollment in U.S., by Field of Study

Field 2010 to 2011 2011 to 2012 2012 to 2013 2013 to 2014
Arts and humanities +5% +5% +9% +3%
Business +9% +15% +6% +2%
Education +12% +8% +3% -1%
Engineering +6% +12% +17% +11%
Life sciences +1% +1% -3% +7%
Physical and earth sciences +12% +4% +18% +20%
Social sciences +8% +8% +7% +2%

Source - Inside Higher Ed