Foreign Grad Student Applications Rebound

After 2 years of substantial decreases in international student applications to U.S. graduate programs, a report released today reveals that the trend has reversed. A survey by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) found that international graduate applications rose by 11% between the 2005 and 2006 academic years.

This uptick was preceded by a glimmer of hope from a CGS report released last November (Science, 11 November 2005, p. 957), which found a 1% increase in international student enrollment in graduate programs at U.S. universities. Enrollments started declining shortly after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, with drops of 8%, 10%, and 6% in 2002, 2003, and 2004, respectively. These numbers jive well with foreign graduate student applications, which declined by 28% and 5% in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

This year, however, 150 graduate institutions responding to the survey not only showed an overall gain in applications but also reported some strong surges. Chinese applications, for example, rose 21% in the past year after falling 45% from 2003 to 2004. During the same periods, Indian applications rose 23% after falling 28%. These countries have consistently been the two largest pools of international students for U.S. universities.

"These broad gains are very welcome news," says CGS President Debra Stewart. She attributes the trends to a "combination of very effective action on the part of the federal government" and "various acts on the part of graduate institutions." The State Department recently relaxed deadlines for student visas, giving holders more flexibility about when they apply and when they may arrive in the U.S. The report's author, CGS Director of Policy and Research Analysis Heath Brown, says that many graduate schools have started to use e-mail and the Internet to reach a broader swath of potential applicants, and to communicate with them more quickly and easily.

Stewart, Brown, and others caution, however, that this year's increase doesn't mean that worries about attracting talented foreign students to U.S. graduate schools are over. Peggy Blumenthal, executive vice president of the Institute of International Education, notes that the gains "don't necessarily translate into increased enrollments." As China and India greatly expand their own graduate programs, and countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, and the Czech Republic campaign to attract international students, foreign students have a wealth of places to pursue their graduate degree, and the U.S. must compete to attract the most talented.

Richard Wheeler, dean of the Graduate College at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, agrees that competition from around the globe is stiff. But, he says, an American graduate education remains highly valued by Chinese universities. "There's still a kind of recognition that they can't quite [offer] what the big American research universities can do for their students."

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