Chinese graduate applications to US decline

After nearly a decade of impressive growth, international graduate student applications at American colleges and universities increased by just 1% this year, against a 9% rise in 2012 and an 11% gain in 2011, according to a new report from the Council of Graduate Schools, or CGS.

The increase was the smallest in eight years, mainly driven by a 5% decrease in applications from Chinese students, who make up a third of America’s graduate students, said the report, titled 2013 CGS International Graduate Admissions Survey.

Applications from some countries continued to rise, with India – which sends the second largest number of international students after China – increasing by 20%.

Applications from Brazil increased the most, by 24%, after 9% growth in 2012. The number applying from Africa and the Middle East also rose, while interest from South Korea, Taiwan, Canada, Mexico and Europe waned.

Real concern

The decline in Chinese student applications is of “real concern”, said CGS President Debra Stewart.

“While the large increases in applications from India and Brazil are encouraging, the decrease in Chinese applicants needs attention,” said Stewart. “As a country, we simply can’t afford to maintain obstacles to international graduate study, especially as other countries are decreasing these barriers for highly qualified students.”

The findings of the survey, which collects responses from 276 American higher education institutions, were based on the first phase of CGS’s annual three-part survey, which looks at international graduate student applications, admissions and enrolments.

Chinese graduate student enrolment rose 22% from 2011-12, the seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth. While it’s too soon to make a confident projection, said Stewart, the decline in applications points to a likely drop in enrolments of Chinese graduate students in the autumn semester, which could have serious implications for the US.

The large increases in Chinese enrolments have offset the recent decline in overall first-time enrolments of domestic students at US colleges and universities, so “a decrease in Chinese enrolments could also have a negative impact on the overall numbers of students enrolling in US graduate programmes", said Stewart.

But Peggy Blumenthal, senior counsellor at the Institute of International Education, said the findings do not necessarily mean fewer Chinese students will enrol at US institutions.

“It is possible that the same number of Chinese students are applying, but to fewer institutions, either due to rising application costs or because they are being more selective,” she said. For example, each student may have sent two applications rather than three or four.

Even with fewer Chinese students applying, she said, American graduate schools could still admit the same number of students as before, since these institutions often receive more applications from China than they can accept.

“If this spring they received only three times as many applications from China as they can accept, instead of four times as many, next fall their enrolments of [Chinese] students will not necessarily decline,” she explained.

Possible reasons

The reasons for the drop in applications are not entirely clear.

One factor could be the expansion of EducationUSA in China, which is aimed at helping Chinese students find the institution that best fits their needs, said Blumenthal.

The growth of joint degree and dual degree programmes offered in China by American universities is also giving some Chinese graduate students the opportunity to get a US degree while staying home which, Blumenthal added, “will likely have an impact on application numbers”.

The uncertain funding situation for foreigners at US institutions could also be offputting for international students, said the council’s Debra Stewart.

“Uncertainty about research funding at an institution may lead to an inability to offer solid, multi-year funding packages for graduate students,” she said.

Another reason could be the growing competition for international students among institutions around the world. Foreign students are now receiving better funding and study offers from countries that are actively recruiting them as part of their strategies to boost their work forces, she said.

According to the report, increases across all areas of study were minimal, between 1% and 7%. The arts and humanities, and social sciences and psychology – subjects in which few international students tend to enrol – saw a 4% increase in applications, while applications increased by just 2%-3% for engineering, physical and Earth sciences, and business, typically the most popular fields of study.

International students also seem to be drawn more to public institutions, which saw applications increase by 3%, while private, not-for-profit institutions experienced a 4% decline in international interest.

Increases were largest in the west and south of the US, while the northeast was the only region to experience a decline.