US: New growth in domestic graduate student enrolment

For the first time in four years, the growth in domestic graduate students enrolling in higher education was higher than for international students.

The figures were published last week in Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 1998 to 2008, by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) and the Graduate Record Examinations Board.

In a statement Nathan E Bell, the report's author and Director of Research and Policy Analysis at CGS, suggested that 2008's increase in first-time graduate enrolment among domestic students was "likely driven by a combination of factors".

He explained: "First, there is increasing competition globally for the best graduate students, as some countries have increased their capacity for graduate education while others are more actively recruiting students. Second, US students are increasingly recognising the value of graduate education, especially in the current economy."

CGS President Debra W Stewart echoed these sentiments by noting that American students were increasingly aware of the importance of contributing to the knowledge-based global economy. She added: "Our future depends on developing highly-trained professionals who have the knowledge and skills required to solve the complex challenges our country faces."

The report also provides insight into graduate enrolment growth trends for women, American racial and ethnic minorities, and international students.

From 1998 to 2008, the annual average increase in enrolments was greater for women than men. Overall, nearly 60% of all graduate students in autumn 2008 were women, and they comprised a larger share of total enrolees at the masters and graduate certification level (61%) as well as at doctoral level (51%).

While proving that the gender gap in higher education in the US has generally been bridged at graduate school level, the data also reveal gender imbalances in certain fields of study. The report confirms patterns of gender-driven field differentiation throughout the decade. Women were more likely than men to be found in health sciences, education, public administration and services, and similar programmes. Although there were annual increases in engineering, physical sciences and business for women, in 2008 men continued to account for more than half (50.4%) of enrolees.

Most notably, the report reveals that in autumn 2008 nearly 64% of domestic graduate students were women compared with only 41% of the international graduate intake. Among domestic students, a notable 73% of Black/African American graduate students were women.

The racial and ethnic divide in American postgraduate education is similarly being narrowed. Last year, nearly one-third of all domestic graduate students identified themselves as members of racial or ethnic minority groups. Of these, 24% were first-time enrolees. Within this group, Black/African Americans were most highly represented but had the lowest rate of growth. Hispanic/Latino enrolment, by contrast, increased at the greatest rate.

Data on enrolments in various degree programmes also revealed interesting trends. Concurring with their faster pace of overall growth in total graduate enrolment, racial and ethnic minorities in the US generally outpaced their Caucasian brethren in programme growth over the decade.

Average annual growth in graduate enrolment for Whites, American Indians/Alaskan Natives and Hispanics/Latinos was highest in health sciences and lowest in arts and humanities and 'other' fields. For Blacks/African Americans and Asians/Pacific Islanders, average annual growth was greatest in business; it was lowest in arts and humanities for the former and physical sciences for the latter.

Overall, education, business and health sciences accounted for nearly half of first-time enrolment in the autumn of 2008.

In general, international students were more highly represented in natural science and engineering than in other fields. Last year, rather more than half of all international graduate students were enrolled in engineering, physical sciences, or biological and agricultural sciences, compared with only 15% of domestic graduate students. At the other end of the spectrum, education programmes enrolled 29% domestic students and only 5% international students.