American Students Struggle for U.S. Grad School Slots Against Foreign-Born Applicants

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

U.S. students had a much harder time getting into American graduate schools this past year than did their peers from China and the rest of the world. And while 1 year is far from a trend, a new report by the Council of Graduate Schools raises the question of how well Americans stack up against international students.

Overall, the report says, 3% more international students received offers of admission for the 2010–11 academic year than in the previous year. That's the fifth increase in the past 6 years. But the survey from the Washington, D.C.,–based organization also found that 1% fewer U.S students than last year have received acceptance letters. The number of applications rose by 9% for each group.

It's the first time the council has used its international survey to collect information on U.S. citizens, so it's hard to know what the different numbers mean. The report doesn't try to provide an answer, although it highlights the data as "a striking difference."

The country with the biggest jump in admissions is China, which sends the second largest number of students to U.S. graduate schools. Its 16% increase represents the fifth straight year of double-digit gains. Conversely, the number of students accepted from India, which has the largest slice of international students in U.S. schools, and from South Korea, which ranks third, continues to fall. The rise in offers of admissions follows an overall 9% increase in the number of graduate applications from all international students.

In addition to suggesting that U.S. citizens were less attractive this year to domestic graduate programs than were their international peers, the decline in offers of admission stands in sharp contrast to what happened in 2008–09. That's when enrollment of first-time international students was flat in comparison to the previous year, while enrollment of U.S. citizens jumped by 6%.

Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis at the council and lead author of the survey, declined to offer an explanation for the contrasting fates of U.S. and international applicants. But he pointed out that U.S. students tend to receive offers of admission throughout the summer, while final decisions on international students are made earlier in the year so that they will have sufficient time to obtain a visa. The report notes that "changes in offers of admission generally track quite closely with changes in first-time enrollment," however, meaning that the gap between the two groups is likely to hold up when the council does its final nose count this fall.

The council has been tracking the flow of international students into U.S. graduate programs since 2003, spurred by concern about the impact on universities of tightened visa policies in the wake of the September 2001 terrorist attacks. Today's report is the second in an annual series of three surveys that measure key steps along the academic process—from applications to offers of admissions to actual enrollment.

The council's survey paints a nationwide picture of the flow of international students. What are things like at your institution?