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Foreign graduate enrolment in the US dips for second year in a row

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Newly released data highlights a second year of decline in foreign graduate commencements in the US
  • This is accompanied by corresponding decreases in foreign applications to US graduate programmes, and a downward trend in overall international enrolment at the graduate level

Foreign students occupy nearly one in five (18.5%) seats in American graduate schools. But their numbers started to decline marginally in 2016 and now the latest data from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) shows that 2017 was a second consecutive year of decreasing international student numbers.

While first-time graduate enrolment for domestic students increased modestly between 2016 and 2017 (up by 1.1%), CGS reports that foreign commencements in US graduate schools fell by nearly 4%. The pattern is similar with respect to total enrolment where domestic numbers grew by just over 1% and international student numbers dropped by 2.4%.

First-time graduate enrolment by field of study and citizenship, 2007–2017. Source: CGS

This follows a 1% decrease in foreign graduate commencements in 2016, which at that point was the first time the number of new international students had declined in the US in a decade.

Also worrying in that 2016 data was a 3% dip in international applications to US graduate schools. That pattern continued through fall 2017 with a nearly 2% decline in overall application volumes for that admissions cycle.

The CGS analysis does not extend to the reasons behind these downward trends but it is clear that many are looking to the current political climate in the US as a factor. “The decrease in application and flat first-time enrolment rates are not unexpected given the robust economy and job market. After years of steady growth, the slow down aligns with typical cycles in the economy,” said CGS President Suzanne Ortega. “What is worrisome, however, is the decline in the number of international students pursuing graduate education in the US. The 3.7% drop in first-time enrolment between fall 2016 and fall 2017 is the second consecutive decrease we’ve seen since 2003. While it is difficult to pinpoint what caused the decline, the current policy climate around US visas and immigration may be a contributing factor.”

A related report from Inside Higher Ed adds, “While actual visa and other policy regulations appear to have impacted relatively few prospective students, there also have been reports of students being rejected for visas, signaling that even if rules haven’t yet changed all that much, enforcement has.”

In a similar vein, it is reasonable to imagine that some notable pending changes in US policy may also bear on the decision making of foreign graduate students. These include planned reforms to the H-1B “working visa”, as well as anticipated changes to the Optional Practical Training (OPT) programme and some recently introduced restrictions on study visas for Chinese students.

The impact of these policy changes will vary by sending market and field of study – but taken together with the US administration’s travel ban on citizens of several Muslim-majority countries – they appear to be contributing to a climate where international students may feel less welcome in the US.

The India factor

As the preceding table indicates, the sharpest declines were registered in the humanities, education, and engineering fields. CGS does not break down enrolment changes by sending market in this latest report, but a separate survey report released earlier this year highlights that application volumes were especially depressed for Indian students (down 15% between fall 2016 and fall 2017).

The significance of this is that India, along with China, accounts for more than half of all foreign enrolment in US graduate schools. Any material change in the growth trends or one of these key markets will, as we see in these latest figures, have an impact on overall application volumes, commencements, and enrolment.

For additional background, please see:

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