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16th Apr 2013

American graduate schools see alarming drop in applications from Chinese students

A dramatic drop in the number of Chinese students applying to US graduate schools this spring – a 5% decline, after seven years of double-digit increases, according to a study of admissions data by the Council of Graduate Schools – illustrates that study abroad destination markets, even one as established as the US, are vulnerable and subject to quick reversals of fortune. This ICEF Monitor article looks at the applications data and offers possible strategies for American student recruiters.

Meagre growth overall despite a big leap in Indian applications

International graduate applications to US schools rose by 1% overall this spring (compared to 12% in 2011 and 9% in 2012), but they likely would have fallen into negative territory were it not for a 20% jump in applications from Indian students. This big surge is definitely a positive development, but The Chronicle of Higher Education notes that it may not be a trend:

“Indian families … tend to be price-sensitive, their education decisions subject to economic fluctuations and employment prospects, both at home and abroad. Consequently, their enrolment trend line has been a series of peaks, valleys, and plateaus - in one recent year, for instance, the number of applications from India exploded by 23%, only to plummet by nearly 10% two years later.”

Graduate applications from Brazilian students also grew substantially (+24%), which may stem in large part from the Brazilian government’s investment in US scholarships for their students.

Why the Chinese drop is so worrying

The 5% decrease among Chinese students may result in a huge blow to many American universities, since as of a year ago, Chinese students accounted for half of all foreign applicants to American graduate schools and one-third of those enrolled. Other countries contributing to percentage declines in US graduate school applications this spring are South Korea and Taiwan (-13% each) and Mexico (-11%). These source countries are often prioritised in national and institution-specific recruitment targeting, so the decreases here are also very notable. Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, is on record as being very concerned about the Chinese drop in particular, calling it “disturbing” and “precipitous” … “a post-9/11 kind of drop.” She attributed at least part of the decrease to a restricted funding environment for students attending US schools, and said:

“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.”

Recruitment barriers aside, some hold out hope that the decrease in overall graduate applications from Chinese students will not result in a decrease in actual enrolments. Peggy Blumenthal, senior counsellor at the Institute of International Education (IIE), said to University World News: “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.”

Possible reasons for the decrease

While there isn’t consensus on exactly why the Chinese numbers have fallen so drastically, University World News outlines several possibilities:

  • The expansion in China of EducationUSA, the US State Department-supported network that helps foreign students with their applications to US colleges and universities, which may have contributed to a more selective application process this year;
  • The growth of joint degree and dual degree programmes offered in China by American universities, which allow Chinese students to stay home as they pursue US-branded degrees;
  • The uncertain funding situation for foreign students at US universities;
  • The growing competition for international students from institutions across the world.

The Chinese drop also occurs at a time where there have been reports of concern in China at the high unemployment rate of Chinese post-graduates, which has been rising for the past seven years and which was higher than the unemployment rate for undergraduates in the three years to 2012.

The potential implications for US graduate schools

If declining international student applications turn into lower international student enrolment rates, some US graduate schools may find themselves in trouble. As we reported in our previous article "With US enrolments declining, strategies may focus further on international students", a Moody’s study of more than 200 American universities found that, for the fiscal year 2013, almost half of surveyed institutions predicted lower enrolment among full-time students, especially for graduate programmes. Part of many institutions’ strategies for offsetting downward trends in domestic enrolments has been courting international students, and for the past two years, international student numbers have been increasing. According to the IIE’s most recent Open Doors report, international student enrolment in the US increased in 2012 by 5.7%, and new international student enrolment – students enrolling for the first time at a US institution in fall 2011 – increased 6.5% over the previous year. But that same report cautioned that “US institutions may be overly reliant on China as a source country.” The alarm with which the new China applications data has been met seems to suggest that indeed, many institutions are highly reliant on China – but understandably, given the huge pool of students in China and their enthusiasm of late for study abroad. On that note, The Chronicle of Higher Education has just published an excellent article underlining the need for diversification strategies as well as the danger to the US if the country turns out to be losing its competitiveness in attracting foreign students.

Strategies to consider

As mentioned earlier in this article, the relationship between application numbers and actual enrolments is variable – just because a student has applied at an institution doesn’t mean he/she is going to choose it as a final study destination. It is precisely now that international students are making up their minds, so it is an excellent time to fine-tune and focus marketing outreach and recruitment strategies on the most likely candidates. Our recent article, "From prospects to enrolments: direct marketing in international recruitment", notes how crucial it is to segment recruitment lists and to follow up with customised messaging to the most promising candidates. We also emphasised the need for institutions to ensure they have answered all the questions prospects may have: i.e., what do they need to hear before they will enrol with you? Or, feel? Additional questions from the article include:

  • Do they need to see how happy current students are (possible marketing response: testimonials and increased reliance on student advocates on social media platforms)?
  • How successful graduates are (possible response: increased reliance on alumni)?
  • How much they will be supported as international students (possible response: more offers of live chats, Skype conversations, one-on-one calls with current international students)?
  • More certainty that they can afford to study with you (possible response: last-minute offers – and deadlines – for accommodations, transport, meal-plan savings)?

If possible, spring/summer 2013 would be a good time for American graduate programmes to pull out all the stops to maximise the chances that the international students who have applied will go on to enrol in the fall. This is the best possible short-term strategy to help avoid disappointing fall enrolments. In the long term, however, American higher education institutions will have to press for a harmonised national strategy – encompassing everything from funding to visa and immigration policies – that allows the US to hold its position in the increasingly intense global competition for international students.

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