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International applications to US graduate programmes are still declining

Fewer students are applying from India, Europe, Mexico and Middle Eastern nations.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Students walk near Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA, 2012

The number of international applications to US graduate programmes has fallen for the second year in a row.Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty

US universities continue to lose appeal for prospective international graduate students, according to a survey of 240 institutions conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) in Washington DC. The report finds that international applications for graduate programmes dropped by 4% from autumn 2017 to autumn 2018 — the second straight year of decline. The report was published on 7 February.

The overall fall in applications was driven by a 6% drop in the number of students seeking master’s degrees. Overall, applications for PhD programmes rose by 1%. Much of the decline in master’s applications is due to those from India, long a major source of master’s students in engineering and computer science. Total graduate applications from that country for PhD and master’s programmes dropped by 12% from 2017. Applications from countries in Europe fell by 13%. The Middle East and Mexico also produced fewer applicants last year than in the previous year, whereas applications from sub-Saharan Africa jumped by 28%.

“International students play an enormous role in research and scholarship at US universities,” says CGS president Suzanne Ortega. She says that the unprecedented two-year decline in applications should make universities take notice. “Given the importance of international students, we have to think carefully about our strategy.”

The number of applications from China — the largest source of non-US graduate students — stayed relatively consistent, and applications from Canada similarly showed little change.

The survey found widely varying results across different fields of study. Applications for graduate programmes in mathematics and computer science increased by 6% from 2017, yet applications for the physical and Earth sciences and for engineering dropped relatively precipitously, by 9% and 16%, respectively.

Hans de Wit, an education researcher and director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, says that the US administration’s unwelcoming attitude towards international visitors and residents might be partly to blame for the drop.

But de Wit notes that students also have more choices than ever. “There’s an increasing global competition for international students,” he says. He says that universities in Canada and Europe are attracting students through relatively simple immigration processes and affordable tuition fees. Also, he says, the growth of high-quality universities in China, South Korea and elsewhere are giving students in those countries more opportunities to pursue their degrees without leaving home.

Although the most prestigious, well-funded US universities will always be able to attract students from overseas, less-well-known institutions are likely to feel mounting pressure, de Wit says. “Public universities in the United States that are increasingly dependent on tuition fees from international students to compensate for the decline in state funding will suffer,” he says.

But universities can do more than worry about dwindling international applications, says Hironao Okahana, a CGS policy analyst and a co-author of the report. “Some institutions are able to maintain, or in some cases increase, their international numbers,” he says. “They’re using their existing relationships between faculty members here and faculty members overseas, and they’re sending the message that their institutions are a good and welcoming destination.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00566-3
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