New data contradicts a common assumption that many if not most international graduate students come to the United States to pursue doctoral degrees.
In fact, nearly four out of five international students enrolled for the first time on courses in the US joined masters or certificate programmes, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, or CGS.
The CGS claims its report offers an “unprecedented picture” of the degree objectives of international graduate students studying in the United States and is the only report of its kind to provide data on the current autumn term.
Based on an annual survey of graduate institutions, International Graduate Applications and Enrollment: Fall 2015 reports applications, admissions and enrolments of international masters, certificate and doctoral students at US colleges and universities.
It shows that the degree objectives of international applicants and enrolled students vary widely by country of origin and field of study.
Chinese and Indian students represented the largest share of first-time masters and certificate enrolments this term, together representing 72% of first-time enrolees in these programmes.
Indian students, for whom first-time enrolment has seen double-digit increases over the past three admission cycles, demonstrated the strongest interest, with 91% of them enrolling in masters degrees and certificates this semester. Four out of five Saudi Arabian graduate students also were most likely to pursue masters and certificate programmes.
By contrast, 47% of South Korean students, and 44% of students from the Middle East and North Africa enrolled in doctoral programmes.
These two groups not only diverge from the preferences of their peers of other nationalities, but also with trends in overall doctoral enrolment at US institutions.
According to the CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees, which captured data from the previous year (2014), first-time doctoral enrolment for both international and domestic students constituted only 16.8% of all graduate enrolment.
Suzanne T Ortega, CGS president, said the report’s findings demonstrate the strong reputation of US masters degrees outside the United States.
“While doctoral programmes and institutions have long been viewed as a major draw from international students, it is clear that international students also recognise the value of US masters education.”
She said masters degrees are critical entry points for a wide variety of professions and international students are “taking advantage of the skills and knowledge these programmes offer in addition to the stellar doctoral training provided by US institutions”.
Growth tapering off
However, there are signs that growth in demand is tapering off. Compared to 2013-14 the rate of growth in final applications among international students actually fell from 10% to 3% and the rate of growth in enrolment fell from 8% to 5%.
However, the report noted that “although rates of growth for international graduate admissions appear to have slowed down, the rate of growth for first-time international graduate enrolment reported in this survey (5%) was still greater than that for domestic students (2%)”.
Chinese and Indian nationals continue to make up a large share of international graduate applications and enrolments in the US, sending nearly 79% of such applications this semester.
Chinese and Indian graduates each accounted for 36% of total international first-time graduate enrolment in masters and certificate programmes.
Thirty-five per cent of international doctoral students enrolled for the first time this autumn were Chinese students, 12% were from India, 11% from the Middle East and North Africa, and 10% from Europe.
Overall the report found that India has “shown strength”, with its total masters and certificate enrolment number surpassing that of Chinese graduate students. However, it noted that while the trajectory of reported growth may suggest that India is catching up to China in terms of graduate admissions in the United States, first-time graduate enrolment of Indian students increased by only 12% between the autumn of 2014 and this autumn, “a considerably slower rate of growth compared to the past two admission cycles”.
In addition, China recovered its growth of first time nationals attending US graduate institutions to 12%, despite not seeing any growth in final applications, the report said.
Engineering was the most popular field of study, comprising 32% of first time enrolments by international graduate students in doctoral programmes and 28% of first time enrolments in masters programmes.
Fastest growing fields
However, the fastest growing fields were mathematics and computer sciences, up 9% and 11% respectively.
Conducted since 2004, the CGS International Graduate Admissions Survey tracks the applications and enrolments of international students seeking US masters and doctoral degrees. For the first time, in 2015, institutions responding to the survey were asked to disaggregate their data for master’s and certificate programmes and doctoral programmes, yielding the only degree-level data currently available for graduate admissions and enrolments.
Some 350 US graduate institutions that are members of CGS or its regional affiliates responded to the 2015 survey. These institutions received nearly 790,000 applications for graduate admissions from international students, which led to 210,000 offers of admission and about 85,000 first-time international graduate enrolments in autumn 2015.
The Council of Graduate Schools is an organisation of approximately 500 institutions of higher education in the United States and Canada engaged in graduate education, research and the preparation of candidates for advanced degrees.
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