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US: Another look at shifts in international graduate student interests

Making up nearly half of all international student enrolments in the United States, international graduate students play a significant role in the research operations and internationalisation strategies of American universities.  Yet, as revealed in a new report by the US Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), international student interest in the United States continues to evolve.  CGS data track international student numbers from the point of application through initial acceptance offers to final enrolment; this August’s report summarises phase two, final applications and admission.  Overall, CGS found that international graduate student applications increased by 9% in fall 2010, reversing a trend of slowing growth and finally pushing application numbers back to 2003 levels.  Also, initial acceptance of international graduate students increased by 3%, reversing a decrease of 1% from last year.

This year’s meaningful increase in applications and acceptances can be attributed at least in part to booming student interest in China; for the fifth consecutive year, rates of growth for applications and acceptances of Chinese students reached well into double digits. The author of the study has stated in other press reports that this could reflect a persistent gap in capacity for advanced degrees at China’s own universities, as well as a logical effect of growing Chinese undergraduate enrolments in the US. Also notable, American graduate schools saw double-digit increases in applications and acceptances from students from the Middle East and Turkey. However, confirming other research groups’ student data reports, applications and acceptances of students from India and South Korea—the other two countries among the top three senders—remain stagnant, though with some improvement over last year’s alarming drops.

Unlike other student data reports such as IIE’s Open Doors and last month’s National Science Foundation study (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, July 2010), the CGS report stands out in its measurement of international student interests via application numbers, as well as judgments on students’ qualifications via acceptance numbers.  In targeting a specific host country, it is clear that Chinese students continue to value US degrees; however, it seems that the many new regional options available to Indian and South Korean students may be decreasing their interest in studying in the US.  At the level of institution choice, CGS observed an increasing clustering of international graduate student applications in the ten institutions with highest international student enrolments, pointing to the success of their strong name recognition and recruiting networks abroad.  As this and a growing number of other student data reports have demonstrated, shifts are clearly underway in international student interest in US graduate degrees; we won’t know the best confirmation of this—the actual enrolment data—until November.

Council of Graduate Schools