U.S. Grad Schools Recover From Dip in Foreign Applications

Jeff tries to explain how government works to readers of Science.

For the fifth consecutive year, the number of international students applying to U.S. graduate schools has risen. Fueled by a boom in the number of Chinese students earning undergraduate degrees, the trend finally erases a steep drop in 2003-05 that's generally attributed to tightened visa procedures following the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

A new report out today from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) documents a 7% jump in applicants for the 2010-11 academic year. Students from China led the way, with a 19% jump over 2009 that continues several years of double-digit increases. Applications from Indian students dropped 2%, after a 12% decline in 2009, while the number of applications from South Korean students remained flat, after a 9% drop in 2009. Those three countries are the source of half of all international applicants to U.S. graduate schools. The Middle East and Turkey added to its string of double-digit increases with a 18% boost in 2010, although that region generates only about 6% of all foreign applicants.

"China simply cannot keep up with demand," says Nathan Bell, the council's research director.

Bell manages the survey of some 505 member institutions (the response rate was 48%). "Other countries are also seeing the impact of China's tremendous growth in undergraduate education." The survey, begun in 2004, paints a three-step picture of the graduate enrollment process. Part I covers applications, part II tracks admissions, and part III records who actually shows up for classes. Typically, the change in actual enrollment is roughly half the magnitude of annual changes in applications. But Bell says that he's reluctant to make any predictions this year because of the uncertainty about the financial aid packages that institutions will be able to offer.

The number of applicants increased for all fields of study, led by an 11% jump in psychology and the social sciences. The life sciences trailed the field, with a 3% bump. The 6-year trend varies greatly across the 75 institutions that CGS has tracked since 2004, however. Slightly more than half enjoyed, on average, a 35% increase in applications over the period. The rest suffered an average decline of 25% in applications. In general, large institutions saw a bigger bump in applications this year than did small institutions.

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