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14th Sep 2022

New data shows spike in international applications and first-time students for US graduate programmes

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • The number of international applications to US graduate programmes increased by 12% in 2021 compared with 2020
  • Master’s programmes are particularly popular, especially among Indian students
  • Indian students sent more applications to US graduate programmes than Chinese students did in fall 2021
  • First-time enrolment trends are also notably up

International applications to US graduate programmes increased by 12% in fall 2021 according to the International Graduate Applications and Enrollment: Fall 2021 report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). The information in the report is based on CGS’s International Graduate Admissions Survey of 744 US colleges and universities.

The 12% increase – equating to 852,006 applications – is the third consecutive year of growth, and in addition, the number of applications for master’s and certificate programmes is higher than in fall 2018, the previous record.

Commenting on the data, Suzanne T. Ortega, president of CGS, said,

“These findings are a strong sign that, despite changes brought on by the pandemic, the United States remains a destination of choice for international graduate students.”

India rising

Driving the increase are Indian students: there was a 36% bump in applications from India in fall 2021. CGS notes: “The rate of increase of applications from India surpassed that of China” for the first time in five years. The number of Chinese applications fell by 16%.

Graduate enrolments are also trending up. The number of first-time international students enrolled increased by 92% in fall 2021 from fall 2020 to reach 101,371, which is a sure sign of recovery from pandemic-related disruption but also pre-pandemic declines (commencements had fallen by 39% between fall 2019 and fall 2020).

Again, India is a major force behind the uptick in enrolments: the number of Indians enrolled for the first time in US graduate programmes grew by a massive 430%, compared with 35% for Chinese students.
This growth is largely due to high rates of deferral by Indian students over the course of the pandemic; CGS explains that “Basically, fall of 2021 saw Indian students from two consecutive application years matriculating at the same time.”

Indian and Chinese students are particularly interested in master’s programmes, as opposed to Iranian, South Korean, Middle Eastern, and North African students, who gravitate to doctoral programmes.

Overall, Asian countries represent 78% of all first-time international students enrolled in US master’s and certificate programmes.

Total international graduate applications and first-time enrolment by degree type, 2018-2021. Source: CGS

Together, Chinese and Indian students accounted for nearly two-thirds (64%) of all graduate applications. CGS notes, “Indian nationals increased their share of master’s and certificate applications by six percentage points last year, while the share of Chinese nationals’ master’s and certificate applications declined by nine percentage points from the prior year.”

Other sending markets look stronger as well

As shown in the table below, applications from Europe grew by 28% in fall 2021 over fall 2020 – the first growth from this region since 2016. Latin American and Caribbean students are also becoming more interested in the US, sending in 23% more applications in 2021. Middle Eastern and North African students submitted 35% more and Sub-Saharan African students sent 64% more applications. Sub-Saharan African countries have been an increasingly important growth region for US educators in recent years.

Country/regional trends in applications to US graduate programmes, 2021. Source: CGS

Popular fields of study

Arts & Humanities was the only field where there was a slight decrease in applications (-1%). The fields of study that saw applications increase the most were Public Administration & Services (+43% - and much more popular than at any time in the past six years), Education (+25%, and again much more popular than in recent years), and Health Sciences (+22%, another big increase).

In terms of enrolments, the number of first-time international students in Math & Computer Sciences graduate programmes rose by a massive +189%. Engineering programmes also enrolled many more students (+129%).

For additional background, please see:

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