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International gains buck downward enrolment trend in US graduate schools

A recent report by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) has observed an interesting gap between applications to US graduate schools – up 4.3% from 2010 to 2011 – and first-time enrolments in US graduate schools – down 1.7% in the same time period (and representing the second year of a downward trend). While the overall trend for enrolments is downward, however, there is one crucial exception: international enrolments in US graduate schools are up … by 8% in 2011 and 8% again in 2012.

Looking first at the overall numbers – and the gap between applications and enrolments – it seems likely that the sluggish global economy is playing a part.

On the one hand, there are unemployed workers and nervous university and college graduates making the most of uncertain job prospects (and an increasingly competitive labour market) by applying for graduate studies.

On the other hand, the economy is again at work: student debt loads and shrinking funding for universities, and thus diminished capacity and financial aid for students, may be making it harder for applicants to follow through on their intentions of studying at the graduate level.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Debra W. Stewart, the Council of Graduate Schools’ president, attributes the enrolment declines to “departments’ cutting back on the number of available slots for students, growing student debt among undergraduates, and shrinking state appropriations for graduate programmes at public institutions.”

Ms. Stewart argues:

The 4.3% increase in application numbers reveals that students are eager to attend graduate school. While the 1.7% decrease in first-time enrolment is not dramatic, the fact that we are now in the second year of reversed growth is a sign that we must respond with strong investments in graduate programmes and student funding.

The hardest hit areas in terms of enrolments were education programmes, with a decline of 8.8% in 2011 after an 8.1% decline the year before; Ms. Stewart noted to the New York Times that:

School systems especially are in financial stress. Teachers are no longer being provided time off to get graduate degrees, and schools are no longer funding principals to go back and get principal certificates.

Arts and humanities also got hit, with a decline in new enrolments of 5.4%. By contrast, enrolments in health sciences were up by 6.4%, a slower rate of increase than at previous times in the last decade, but still a definite increase.

Thank goodness then that international demand remains strong.

The 8% increase in international student enrolments in both 2011 and 2012 represents the third year of growth in this recruitment pool, and “total enrolment of international graduate students among responding institutions reached 197,000 in 2012.”

International students, including those in major markets such as China and India, remain attracted to the US because of the prestige and reputation of many of its graduate programmes (and related impact on employment prospects after graduation) as well as the relatively limited availability and/or lesser quality of graduate programmes in their home countries.

The main countries contributing to increasing international enrolments at US graduate schools, as reported by the Council of Graduate Schools, are:

  • China: 22% growth (the seventh consecutive year of double-digit growth) … “Chinese students now constitute 37% of all international graduate students in the United States, according to survey respondents.”
  • Middle East: as a region, 18% growth.
  • Brazil: 14% growth.
  • India: 1% growth, but up from previous years which saw declines of as much as 16%.
  • South Korea: down by 3%, which nevertheless represents a great change from declines of previous years.

Of international students’ contributions to US graduate schools’ first-time enrolments, Ms. Stewart said:

The data show us that international students represent a growing percentage of overall graduate enrolment in the United States – a sign that graduate students, and in many cases, the countries that fund their studies, recognise the quality and return-on-investment provided by US graduate degrees. The stabilising rates of growth in first-time enrolments for India and South Korea are also good news for US graduate institutions.

The consulting firm Noel-Levitz has an excellent related article that provides five recommendations for graduate school recruiters. Their suggested strategies are worth a close look; for now we’ll point to one that especially caught our eye in light of the tough global economy, the worry about student debt loads, and the tighter scholarship/financial aid environment in the US:

Make financing a part of the recruitment picture.

Anecdotal reports suggest students are more wary about making an investment in graduate programmes, or are just too strapped financially to consider graduate study.

Recruitment materials should be clear about programme cost, but should also focus on the return on the investment in terms of a future job/career. In addition, scholarships and assistantship funds, if available, should be leveraged to recruit new students, which might mean working more closely with faculty committees.

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