International postgraduate enrolment in US universities plummets

Concern tempered by applications and deferrals suggesting post-Covid recovery

February 18, 2021

New enrolments by international students on US postgraduate courses fell 39 per cent this autumn, largely reflecting pandemic-related deferrals by accepted applicants, the Council of Graduate Schools reported.

The negative news, however, was tempered by figures on application rates and deferrals that suggest that US graduate schools might have seen increased foreign enrolment if not for the Covid crisis, the council said.

“Although the decline in first-time enrolment was substantial,” the group said in an annual tally, “there were also many offers of admissions for fall 2020 that have been deferred to future academic terms.”

The steep losses of overseas students from postgraduate courses in the US are similar to the 43 per cent retreat this past autumn at the undergraduate level. The undergraduate figure was estimated in November by the Institute of International Education in a preliminary version of its annual report.

The declines this past semester at the postgraduate level were especially heavy among the two largest suppliers of foreign students, with first-time enrolment plummeting by 37 per cent from China and by 66 per cent from India, the graduate schools council said.

The much bigger losses from India likely reflect the fact that it has relatively few students in the US at the undergraduate level, meaning that they faced greater pandemic-related barriers to gaining physical entry to the US, said Hironao Okahana, the council’s vice-president for research and knowledge development.

The council represents about 500 universities, mostly in the US.

Its numbers showed autumn 2020 first-time US graduate school enrolment by international students of 21,742 at the master’s and certificate level, down from 40,034 the previous autumn. Among doctoral students, the numbers dropped to 9,626, from 13,802 in autumn 2019.

Adding the numbers of students who accepted and deferred their offers, however, would raise the master’s and certificate figure to 48,908, and the doctoral figure to 13,857 – both increases over the previous autumn.

While encouraging, Dr Okahana said, that calculation raises the question of how many new international students US graduate schools could take in 2022 to help compensate for shortfalls this year.

“That is something we will be asking our members and others in the community,” he said. “There is a lot of uncertainty.”

Other large unknowns remain for US universities in the current spring semester. The Biden administration has signalled an intention to be more welcoming towards overseas students, although those who arrived in the US after this past March still need to take at least one in-person class to remain eligible to stay in the country, at the same time that some universities are closing their campuses because of large-scale coronavirus outbreaks.

US universities also bear some blame for sagging foreign enrolment, according to the American Council on Education. The main umbrella group for US higher education issued a report last week suggesting that US campuses too often are looking at international students as a source of revenue, while allowing the quality of their student experiences to decline.

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