Indian, African gains offset Chinese losses for graduate schools

Overall US recruitment from overseas up 8 per cent at postgraduate level, according to annual survey

June 22, 2023
Source: iStock

International postgraduate enrolment in the US rose 8 per cent in the past academic year, with declines from China more than offset by gains from India and sub-Saharan Africa, a major annual survey has found.

The single-year enrolment gains, as measured for last autumn among first-time international graduate students, included Iran, up 33 per cent; India, up 22 per cent; and sub-Saharan Africa, up 13 per cent, according to figures compiled by the Council of Graduate Schools.

Graduate-level enrolment fell 11 per cent among students from China and by 40 per cent among those from Saudi Arabia – both countries facing significant tension in their political relations with the US.

The gains from sub-Saharan Africa – a region that is projected to double the number of students it sends abroad by 2050 – look especially significant for future enrolment growth in the US, according to the council, which represents about 500 institutions in the US and Canada.

US institutions hoping to take advantage of the opportunity presented by Africa do need to keep in mind the specific needs of the region’s students and their families, said the council’s president, Suzanne Ortega. That includes tapping into regional recruitment networks, and being sensitive to financial concerns and preferences for particular majors, Dr Ortega said.

“All of those things are starting to happen,” she said.

As for China – a long-time leading supplier of students to US colleges and universities – overall interest remains strong among its students, and their levels could revive if political tensions ease, Dr Ortega said.

“I don’t think that signals we’ve lost China,” she said of her organisation’s data, “because I think there’s still – and the applications suggest this – a real sense that a US graduate education holds value, in part because it provides an opportunity to get work experience, demonstrate mastery of US culture and language. And those things are likely to remain attractive for the foreseeable future.”

The council has not yet tallied overall graduate school enrolment across the US for the past academic year, though its past data shows that the international numbers have been growing faster than domestic in recent years.

The council’s new data also affirms another growing cleavage: master’s and certificate enrolments had a second straight year of gains among first-time international students, increasing 28 per cent to 122,328 in autumn 2022, while doctoral enrolments gained only 2.5 per cent to 75,666 students in the same period.

That seems to reflect the fact that master’s degree programmes are shorter and “more directly aligned to workforce”, Dr Ortega said.

By broad field of study, the largest single-year gains among international students at US graduate schools included arts and humanities, up 12 per cent; public service and administration, up 14 per cent; and the council’s “other fields” category – including such disciplines as architecture and environmental design, communications and journalism, and homeland security – up 35 per cent. No field had a decrease greater than 1 percentage point.

The 8 per cent gain in overall international student enrolment at the graduate level follows a 92 per cent increase between autumn 2020 and autumn 2021, mainly reflecting a rebound from Covid-era declines. In that previous year, measured in autumn 2021, the first-time enrolment of Chinese nationals and Indian nationals increased by 35 per cent and 430 per cent respectively.

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