US: Chinese help spur modest graduate increase

The latest Council of Graduate Schools' (CGS) International Graduate Admissions Survey shows the zero growth reported last year has been replaced by gains of 3% in current first-time enrolments to US graduate schools. But the big story is the sustained, double-digit growth in enrolment of first-time Chinese students to US graduate programmes.

"Chinese students account for a much larger share of all international graduate students in the US than they did just five years ago," notes the survey's lead author, Nathan Bell.

Although the staggering 20% increase is undoubtedly influenced by graduate programme demand exceeding capacity within China, these growth figures nonetheless "reflect the value Chinese students place on having a graduate degree from a US institution," he says.

The increase in Chinese students stood out for Patrick Osmer, dean of the graduate school and vice provost at Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio. "The increase is striking," he says, noting that Chinese student numbers are up 13% at his institution. Overall international student numbers at OSU, like the national average, increased by 3% from last year.

Based on responses from 230 institutions, the survey relies on data assembled from four key sending countries or regions - China, India, South Korea, and the Middle East and Turkey - that account for about 50% of all non-US visa students attending graduate programmes in the US.

OSU's data are consistent with other trends also found across the US and reported in the CGS survey: in particular, that while student enrolments from the Middle East and Turkey were up (by 7%), they were down for students from South Korea and India (by 3% each).

The decline in South Korean and Indian students is not as great as in 2009, when 13% and 16% fewer students (respectively) enrolled in American graduate programmes. At that time, "serious concerns [were raised] about the future participation of students from these countries in US graduate programmes," notes Bell.

"This year's smaller declines reflect the less volatile economy and the continued interest in students from these two large sending countries," he adds.

Changes in choice of field and institutional type remain too variable to indicate long-term trends, but are nonetheless worthy of note.

Six out of 10 international graduate students attending US institutions were enrolled in one of three fields: engineering, physical and earth sciences (including mathematics and computer science) and business.

The biggest gains were to be found in physical and earth sciences, and in the arts and humanities. The former recovered from a 4% decline in 2009 to increase by 9% this year, while the latter shifted from a 3% decline in 2009 to a 5% rise in enrolment in 2010. For the second straight year, life sciences experienced zero growth, while education programmes enrolled 7% fewer international students in 2010 after enjoying increases of 5% last year.

Increases in first-time international enrolments were found more notably at doctoral than masters-focused institutions. In fact, the former saw growth of 4% while the latter saw 7% fewer enrolments. Among these doctoral institutions, the greatest increase occurred in the private, non-profit sector.

One hundred higher education institutions in the US are responsible for awarding 60% of all graduate degrees to international students each year. Among these institutions, there was an above-average 4% growth in first-time international enrolment.

Patterns of international graduate student regional distribution in the US since 2009 reveal a 10% increase in popularity of north-eastern institutions compared with increased enrolments of 3% at institutions in the south, 1% in the west and no growth in the midwest.