American graduate school enrollment: a new decline, driven by international students

In 2017 the number of graduate students enrolled in American universities declined, as compared with 2016 numbers.  That’s the finding of a new Council of Graduate Schools study by Hironao Okahana and Enyu Zhou, which I’d like to break down in this post.

tl;dr version – international student numbers declined, especially in engineering, bringing down overall applications and enrollments.

Overall, graduate school applications ticked down.  “Applications for admission to graduate school in Fall 2017 decreased (-1.

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8%) overall.”  There was a strong difference on that score based on private versus public university: “Public institution application counts decreased 3.7%, while private, not-for-profit applications increased 1.4%.”

Total enrollment numbers also ticked down, while slightly:

Total graduate enrollment also flattened (-0.5%) between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017… First-time graduate enrollment flattened (-0.1%) between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017 at the institutions that responded to both the 2016 and 2017 CGS/GRE Surveys of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees. This marks the first decline in first-time graduate enrollment growth rates since academic year 2011 to 2012.

International students Enrollment from outside the US played a key role in this decline.

First-time graduate enrollment of international students decreased (-3.7%) between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017…

They accounted for 20.3% of [all] first-time graduate students in Fall 2017, compared to 21.1% in Fall 2016, and 22.0% in Fall 2015.

In contrast, “first-time and total enrollment increases are driven by U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students (1.1% and 1.2%, respectively)…”  One key point: engineering numbers fell, and the report thinks that “[t]his may be driven by changes in international applications.”  The reasons seem clear: fear of Trump’s policies and possibly violence in American schools.

Race 2017 saw some progress in grad school enrollment by underrepresented minorities:

US grad students by race

Among first-time U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students in the Fall of 2017, about 23.9% were underrepresented minorities, including American Indian/Alaska Native (0.5%), Black/African American (11.9%), Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (0.2%), and Hispanic/Latino (11.3%)…

Interesting curricular point: “Public administration has the largest share of underrepresented minorities.

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”  However, “[m]inority students remain substantially underrepresented, particularly in STEM fields, with an alarming trend for American Indian/Alaska Native [populations].”

Gender More women than men attend and win degrees from American graduate programs.

In Fall 2017, the majority of first-time graduate students at all degree levels were women – 59.2% at the master’s degree level and 53.5% at the doctoral level. Women also earned the majority of graduate certificates (64.0%), master’s degrees (57.3%), and doctoral degrees (53.0%) awarded by U.S. institutions in 2016-17…

Women are still underrepresented in many technology and science fields, however.

Academic fields Broken down by curriculum, 2017’s graduate numbers are quite varied.

2017 grad program majors and national status

Note the differences by international students.

The major declines occurred in a mix of surprising and expected areas: “Some fields saw large decreases over the past year, with an average annual decrease of 5.7% in arts and humanities, 2.3% in physical and earth sciences, and 1.8% in business…”  (Note that business bit; again with the MBA crisis.) In contrast, the leader:

Mathematics and computer sciences have the largest increases in first-time enrollment both for part-time students (21.0%) and for U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students (17.2%) between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017…

See also point about public administration and underrepresented minorities up above.


[b]y broad field of study, the largest number of total applications for Fall 2017 were in engineering (303,209), business (289,183), and health sciences (280,844). Engineering, business, and health sciences alone accounted for 40% of all graduate applications for which the intended field of study was known.

Which echoes undergraduate enrollment in many ways.

One key point to remember is that master’s programs are by far the largest graduate programs in American higher ed: “the large majority (83.

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4%) of degrees awarded in 2016-17 were master’s degrees, while the share of doctoral degrees was 11.1%, and that of graduate certificates was 5.5%…”

There’s much more in the study, like differences between types of research universities, details of academic program enrollment, and still more.

Key takeaways: reduced international interest in American higher ed is continuing to play out, with powerful implications for many students.  Many underrepresented minorities and women in particular have made progress.  Many sciences remain in demand, while the humanities continue to drop.  The picture nationwide is institutionally diverse, with many local variations.

There are actually many commonalities with the Council’s 2015 study.  American enrollment growth remains “puny”, as I called it then.  The big difference is the drop in international students.

Where will American graduate programs go from here?  Will they expand online offerings to attract students who don’t want to travel to our risky campuses? Will they follow undergraduate practice and shift resources from underenrolling programs to those with growing numbers? (a politically tricky task, but still feasible) Might things change after a likely November Democratic Congressional win, or will Trump continue to inspire dread worldwide through 2021?

(via Inside Higher Ed)

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