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International students steer clear of graduate programmes in the United States

US immigration policies and stance might be deterring attendance.
Molly Hawes is a freelance science writer and a copy editor at Nature Sustainability in London.

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A drop in the number of international students enrolling in or returning to US graduate programmes is prompting concerns about immigration policies. Credit: Smari/Getty

The number of international students enrolling in US graduate programmes is falling, according to reports from the US Council of Graduate Schools in Washington DC and the Institute of International Education in New York City.

In a survey of 619 institutions, the council found that 339,038 international students enrolled in US graduate studies for the first time in autumn 2017, down 3.7% from the previous year. This is the second such decline since 2003. New international-student enrolments fell during that period by 4.2% at PhD-granting universities that are classified in the United States as ‘higher research’, meaning that they don’t produce as much research or have as many research staff and faculty members as research-intensive, ‘highest research’ institutions. Total enrolment at these universities fell by 1.4% between 2016 and 2017, the report found. Similarly, at ‘moderate research’ PhD-granting universities, or those that focus more on teaching, first-time enrolment fell by 7.1% over the period, and total enrolment dropped by 5.6%.

The Institute of International Education, which tracks data from the US National Center for Education Statistics, found that the total number of international students, including those both new and continuing, in US graduate programmes fell by 2.1% between the 2016–17 and 2017–18 academic years, to 382,953. First-time graduate enrolments fell by 5.5% for the same period. The report also found that the number of international students enrolling in their first year of an undergraduate degree fell by 5.6% to 72,512 over the same period.

Council president Suzanne Ortega describes the decline as worrisome, and thinks that the current policy climate around US visas and immigration might have contributed to the falling numbers. “This might become a trend if we continue to signal to the world that we are not as welcoming a place as we once were,” she says. US President Donald Trump’s administration has been considering tighter restrictions on the length of time that international students can stay in the country, although with a newly elected Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives, the initiative might fail.

Still, discussion of any such effort, combined with the administration’s proposed immigration policies, might be discouraging prospective applicants from applying to or enrolling in graduate courses, says Ortega.

The decline in international students could impair the global research enterprise by hindering institutions’ efforts to attract top talent and by limiting exposure to diverse ways of thinking, she adds. “Having fewer international graduate students here in the United States affects the experience of US students,” says Ortega. “The robust presence of international graduate students creates opportunities for domestic students to train alongside them and gain the cultural competence needed to be competitive in a global economy.”

Continuing declines in international enrolment — which comprises about 20% of graduate intake nationwide — could negatively affect institutional budgets.

The report also notes that there are still marked gender-based differences in certain subjects. In 2017, twice as many men as women enrolled in graduate degrees in mathematics, engineering and computer science. At the same time, first-time enrolment of women in engineering has risen by 6.4% annually over the past decade, and by 14.7% annually for mathematics and computer sciences.

Nature 565, 389 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07675-5
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