Conflicting International Enrollment Trends at U.S. Institutions of Higher Education

By Nick Clark, Editor, World Education News & Reviews

With the publication of two studies on international enrollments at US institutions of higher education released within weeks of each other in October and November, a somewhat conflicted picture begins to emerge with regards to the immediate future of international enrollment trends at U.S. institutions of higher education, while the full impact of the global financial crisis remains somewhat unclear.

Graduate Enrollments

The Council of Graduate Schools [1] (CGS) was first up with the publication of its report on international enrollments at American graduate schools. This is the final 2009 installment of the CGS’ annual three-part series looking at initial applications (February), final applications and initial graduate school offers of admissions to prospective students (June), and final offers of admission and enrollments to U.S. graduate schools (October). The results of the October report on enrollments generally tracked the findings of the first two reports, which is to say international graduate enrollments in 2009 were flat when compared to 2008, marking the first year of no growth in first-time graduate enrollments since 2004 after slowing growth of 12, 4, & 3 percent in 2006, 2007 & 2008 respectively.

The read on first-time enrollments is particularly important, as it is the leading indicator for future overall enrollment trends, which should be read as two-to-four year moving averages that will move in the direction dictated by recent first-time enrollment numbers. While overall international graduate enrollments were up 2 percent from last year, the trend is toward the flat line, and 2009 first-time enrollment figures suggest the trend will continue in that direction and possibly beyond.

The second study, released November 16, is the Institute for International Education [2]’s Open Doors [3] report, which tracks overall and first-time enrollment numbers at all levels of the tertiary sector. Unlike the CGS report, the IIE data is not current, rather one year delayed. At the graduate level, the IIE report shows similar trends to the CGS data for 2008, with just 2 percent growth in overall enrollments in 2008/09, but shows better growth, 8 percent, in first-time graduate enrollments than the CGS data, which reported 3 percent growth for fall 2008.

As a side note, a third report [4] released in November by the Graduate Management Admission Council [5], suggests that U.S. dominance in graduate business education might also be slipping with growing numbers of internationally mobile applicants opting to study elsewhere. Between 2005 and 2009, the demand for business education grew 75 percent in Asia, compared with 25 percent in Europe, 30 percent in North America, and 43 percent in the Middle East and Africa. Those percentages are based on the numbers of students who took the council’s Graduate Management Admission Test, which is required for entry into most of the world’s top graduate business schools. Importantly, the proportion of test scores sent by foreign citizens to programs at American institutions continued to fall, to 59 percent this year. That was down from 65 percent in 2008 and 75 percent in 2000. With that said, it should still be noted that approximately 80 percent of all graduate business students, both American and foreign, are choosing to attend programs in the United States.

Overall Tertiary Enrollments

As stated above, the Institute for International Education’s (IIE) Open Doors data covers enrollment figures from the 2008-09 academic year, unlike the CGS report which is current. This is of particular importance this year, as the IIE numbers do not fully reflect the impact of the global financial crisis, the extent of which did not become apparent until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in late September 2008 after the major fall enrollment season was already in the books. With regards to the impact of the global financial crisis on international academic mobility, therefore, the most pertinent information currently available is first-time enrollments for academic year 2009/10 as reported in the CGS report.

Regardless, the numbers reported by IIE are eye-popping: overall enrollments up by 8 percent – the largest increase in international enrollments since 1980; new enrollments up 16 percent – yes 16 percent; Chinese enrollments up 21 percent – yes 21 percent – to nearly 100,000; Indian enrollments up 9 percent to over 100,000. Everything about the numbers is bullish for future growth, if only that period of huge and unparalleled economic turmoil had not occurred. So, yes, the 2008/09 Open Doors numbers are impressive, however, the more telling report is still a year away.

India, China, South Korea and the Middle East

While the Open Doors report tracks numbers from all sending countries, the CGS report only offers subset data for the United States’ three largest source countries for international students: India, China and South Korea, in addition to the geopolitically important region of the Middle East.

Both reports find that growth in Chinese enrollments continues to be the hottest trend, rising another 16 percent in 2009 at the graduate level (on the back of growth of 14, 19 and 20 percent for 2008, 2007 and 2006 respectively), according to CGS, and rising a massive 21 percent overall in 2008/09 (after 20, 8, and 0 percent growth in the three previous years), according to the IIE.

While India remains the biggest source of international students in the United States, growth in recent years has not matched that from China. At the graduate level, in fact, Indian enrollments are moving in the opposite direction with first-time enrollments dropping 16 percent in 2009 after a drop of 2 percent in 2008, growth of 8 percent in 2007 and huge growth in 2006 of 32 percent.

The dramatic drop in Indian graduate enrollments for 2009 was not a complete surprise, considering the state of the global economy. Prior to the CGS report, The Economic Times of India [6] in October reported that across India there had been a 25 percent drop in U.S. F1 student visa issuances in financial year 2009 (Oct 08-Sep 09), and experts interviewed by the newspaper suggested this was most likely due to a reduction in scholarship opportunities from U.S. universities, coupled with weaker post-graduation job prospects, rather than anything related to technical visa issues. This rationale suggests that Chinese students are better placed, or more prepared, to personally fund an expensive overseas graduate education than their Indian peers.

Considering the apparent impact that the financial crisis has had on Indian graduate enrollments in the United States, it will be particularly interesting to see if that trend is mirrored in next year’s IIE data at the undergraduate level.

Significant trends from other important markets are also emerging. The third largest source of international students in the United States is South Korea, and graduate enrollments are clearly trending down. In 2009, first-time enrollments dropped 13 percent after a drop of 4 percent last year, and small growth the two years prior (3 and 5 percent in 2007 and 2006 respectively). Overall enrollments, however, appear to be growing. The IIE reports that there was 8.6 percent overall growth in South Korean enrollments last year. This comes despite a weak South Korean economy and perhaps more importantly, a very weak Korean currency.

In the geopolitically important region of the Middle East (including Turkey), the growth pattern continues. First-time graduate enrollments grew 22 percent in 2009, building on growth of 8 and 12 percent in 2008 and 2007 respectively. It should be noted, however, that students from this region comprise just 5 percent of the total international graduate body in the United States.

Open Doors also reported continued growth from the region, with Saudi enrollments showing particular strength – largely as a result of the very well funded King Abdullah scholarship program. Since the program was instituted in 2006, Saudi enrollments have grown from 3,448 to 12,661 in 2008/09.

One-Year Changes in First-Time International Graduate Enrollments

Country of Origin 2006 2007 2008 2009
China +20% +19% +14% +16%
India +32% +8% -2% -16%
South Korea +5% +3% -4% -13%
Middle East and Turkey -1% +12% +8% +22%
All countries +12% +4% +3% +0%

Source: CGS

Total Tertiary Enrollments from Select Countries of Origin

Country of Origin 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
India 76,503 83,833 94,563 103,260
China 62,582 67,723 81,127 98,235
South Korea 59,022 62,392 69,124 75,065
Turkey 11,622 11,506 12,030 13,263
Saudi Arabia 3,448 7,886 9,873 12,661

Source: Open Doors

Explaining Divergent Trends in the Indian and Chinese Student Markets

So why are Chinese students continuing to enroll at U.S. graduate schools in increasing numbers while the number of Indian graduate students declines at a rate equal to Chinese growth? The answer is likely a combination of factors, one of which may be that the Chinese government and middle class managed to weather the global recession better than most.

Another possible explanation is that the dramatic, government-driven increase in domestic undergraduate enrollments in China over the last decade has led to a demand for graduate studies that cannot come close to being met domestically. Tertiary-level participation in India has not increased at nearly the rate it has in China over the last decade, although it might be true to suggest that the supply of places at quality graduate schools in India, as in China, cannot come close to meeting demand. So demand from India for international study opportunities remains high, but it is not growing at nearly the rate as it is in China.

Regardless of source country, the overall trend in international graduate enrollments in the United States is flat at a time when international academic mobility across the globe is booming, according to reports from UNESCO and the OECD. This suggests that despite the high quality of graduate education in the United States, the reality of the current market is that there are many more options for international students in other countries. Realizing this, and hungry for talent to meet the needs of domestic labor markets, competitor nations are becoming increasingly aggressive in their recruitment efforts, which include scholarships and grants, smoother and more convenient visa processes, better job prospects, and attractive immigration and naturalization policies.

Considering the two different stories told by international-enrollment growth (or lack thereof) in undergraduate and graduate enrollments at U.S. universities and colleges, it might be assumed that the competition for international students across the world is particularly intense at the graduate level. While international undergraduate enrollments are important for a variety of reasons – internationalizing the campus, bridging funding gaps, etc – policymakers and universities around the world are increasingly focused on attracting talented graduate students as they offer skills (research, entrepreneurial or otherwise) that will help drive future research, development and economic growth.

In light of these conclusions, the CGS report asks if U.S. policymakers and the graduate school community more broadly need to address questions related to whether or not there are national policies that deter international students from coming to the United States for graduate school. And if so, how to increase the attractiveness of U.S. graduate programs to both domestic and international students? The CGS states that a good starting point might be to look abroad at policies that have proven successful in attracting talented international graduate students.