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US graduate programmes report 39% fewer international commencements in fall 2020

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • New data shows that international student commencements in US graduate programmes fell sharply in fall 2020 despite application volumes having increased over 2019 levels
  • Master’s programmes were particularly affected, with international first-time enrolments dropping by 43%, in large part because of losses from the key Indian market
  • The pandemic has also led to higher rates of international students deferring their start dates

Graduate programmes across the US suffered steep first-time enrolment declines among international students in fall 2020, especially at the master’s level, according to data from the Council of Graduate Schools’ (CGS) International Graduate Applications and Enrollment: Fall 2020 report.

The CGS report is based on information submitted by 326 US colleges and universities. Sixty-nine percent of reporting institutions were public universities and 65% were doctoral universities.

Overall, across master’s and doctoral programmes, first-time international enrolments decreased by 39%. At the master’s level, numbers were off by 43% compared with the fall 2019 intake. International commencements in doctoral programmes were down by 26%.

Graduate enrolment declines were particularly notable among students from Asia (-47%) and the Middle East and North Africa (-36%).

But international applications were up over 2019

The first-time enrolment declines (aka commencements) do not reflect lack of demand for US master’s and doctoral programmes, however. The new CGS data shows that international applications were up 3% over 2019 – building on a similar rate of increase last year. Under normal circumstances, the increase in graduate applications would almost certainly have boosted fall 2020 commencements.

But the pandemic altered the plans of a significant number of international students who were admitted to graduate and postgraduate studies in fall 2020, as suggested by the discrepancy between applications and enrolments. Supplemental CGS surveys found that an overwhelming majority of admissions officers at universities and graduate colleges say that they have received a much higher than usual number of deferrals this year.

In line with other survey results

The graduate enrolment trends are in keeping with those found across all levels of higher education in the US including undergraduate, community college, and OPT. A separate IIE study found a 43% year-over-year decline in international commencements in the fall of 2020 across the spectrum of institutions and levels.

Chinese and Indian numbers fell sharply

Chinese and Indian students contributed 70% of total international applications for fall 2020 graduate programmes. Unfortunately these students represent a high proportion of the international students who did not begin their programmes in fall 2020. Compared with 2019, 37% fewer Chinese students and 66% fewer Indian students commenced graduate and post-graduate studies in the US in fall 2020.

Indian students are far more likely to apply to and enrol in US master’s programmes than in post-graduate programmes, and so the decline in Indian student numbers played a major role in the overall decline in international commencements at the master’s level. Indian students also deferred their start dates more than Chinese students did (21% vs. 6%, respectively).

The Chinese and Indian numbers are troubling given how reliant US graduate schools are on these markets. In the fall of 2019, China and India together made up 63% of all first-time international graduate students enrolled in US institutions.

High rate of deferrals

CGS fielded two supplemental surveys in 2020 among graduate school admissions officers to gauge the extent to which deferrals (i.e., students choosing to delay their start dates by a semester or more) influenced lower first-time enrolments among international students. More than 80% of respondents said that deferrals were up among newly admitted international graduate students compared with previous years, and more than half of them said that deferrals had increased by more than 5%. Twelve percent of deferrals happened at the master’s level and 10% were at the doctoral level.

Some institutions have been particularly affected by deferrals. Wojtek Chodzko-Zajko, dean of the graduate college at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, told Nature.com that international student deferrals in fall 2020 “ballooned to more than 2,000 — 20 times the usual number.” Mr Chodzko-Zajko also notes that the deferrals create tremendous uncertainty around planning the future, saying that if all students who have deferred then assumed their places in the next intake, he wasn’t sure how his institution could handle the influx.

Master’s students faced particular challenges

Writing for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Karin Fischer notes that master’s-level international students might have been particularly likely to defer given that that their programmes are relatively short compared with PhDs. These students might thus have chosen to defer in hopes that doing so would increase the chances of having more, or all, of their programme delivered in-person once pandemic restrictions ease. A fall 2020 start date would have made that less likely.

Another likely reason for commencements falling less steeply at the post-graduate level is that PhD international students would have faced fewer COVID-related hurdles to beginning their programmes in the US in 2020. Hironao Okahana, CGS’s vice president for research and knowledge development, told Ms Fisher that unlike master’s students, many doctoral students would already have been in the US on a visa for study at a different academic level when COVID-related travel restrictions hit.

Graduate programmes more reliant on international enrolments

One in five international students in graduate programmes in the US is an international student – and this rises to more than half in some science and engineering programmes. A 2017 report from the National Foundation for American Policy research organisation found that at that time, roughly 8 in 10 graduate students in computer science programmes and in electrical and petroleum engineering programmes were international students.

In a statement, CGS President Suzanne Ortega said that the fall 2020 enrolment declines are worrisome but not entirely surprising:

“The first-time international graduate student enrolment decreases are alarming, because they undermine the international diversity and vitality of US graduate programmes. Between the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly on health concerns and international travel, and the lack of consistent and timely direction from the Trump administration regarding international graduate student visa policy, we were prepared to see declines.

“Although the declines are concerning, we know our members have prioritised staying connected to both the students who deferred and their existing international graduate student community.”

Like University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign’s Chodzko-Zajko, Ms Ortega said that it is unclear what the high rate of deferrals will mean for planning this year and next:

“When thinking ahead, one of the biggest lingering questions is how the deferrals will affect offers of admission and first-time enrollment for fall 2021 and beyond, particularly if there are still travel limitations.”

At the very least, US educators now know that international demand is growing for graduate programmes delivered face-to-face on their campuses, as revealed by increased applications for fall 2020. The challenge will be in enduring the wait for pandemic restrictions to be lifted – and then being able to absorb the demand when they are.

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