International student applications to American universities declined for the second year

International student applications to American universities declined, once again.  The latest data comes from a Council of Graduate Schools report. It’s vital news for higher education.  Specifically, it concerns graduate school populations.

Hironao Okahana and Enyu Zhou surveyed 240 universities in the United States, along with several in Canada.  They sound that, overall, “the number of graduate applications from prospective international students declined by 4%.” 

The authors break this down by program and institutional type, revealing some interesting unevenness.  By program level: “This overall decline was driven by the 6% decline in master’s applications; the number of doctoral applications actually increased by 1% between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018.”  By institution:

Declines in master’s applications were particularly pronounced at Doctoral Universities with Highest Research Activity (n = 66, -6%), other Doctoral Universities (n = 81, -9%), and Master’s Colleges and Universities and Other Institutions (n = 93, -1%) between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018.

Also, a large gap opens up between master’s and doctoral programs:

The overall decline of master’s first-time enrollment appears to be driven by -8% decline at the other types of Doctorate-granting Universities and the 15% decline at Master’s Colleges and Universities and Other Institutions.

This is not an entirely dark picture.  The report notes that while applications tended to decrease, actual enrollments remained the same:

the aggregated international graduate application acceptance rates and yield rates for Fall 2018 were similar to those of Fall 2017 across degree level and institutional types. At the doctoral level, there was no change in the aggregated international graduate application acceptance rates across institutional types for Fall 2018, compared to those in Fall 2017.

The report helpfully breaks down applications by nation, which yields some important and even surprising findings.  While China and India together account for the majority of international interest (71%, according to the CGS study), India saw a decline, while China did not: “[f]irst-time enrollment of Indian nationals decreased by 2% between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018.”  What caused this Indian drop?  According to Axios, it’s because of “a combination of factors including the weakening Indian rupee, the increasing quality of Indian graduate programs and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S. [according to] Okahana.”

Chinese enrollment in American grad schools in fact leads the rest of the world:  “42% of first-time international master’s & certificate students and 34% of first-time international doctoral students were Chinese nationals in Fall 2018.”

Unsurprisingly, Middle Eastern applications continue to drop, led by Iran.

Graduate applications from Middle Eastern & North African students to U.S. graduate schools in this study fell by 14% between the Fall 2017 and Fall 2018 admission cycles. This was a slower rate of decline as compared to the prior cycle; however, the number of graduate applications from prospective Iranian students declined by 27% this year. Graduate applications from Saudi Arabian students also decreased between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018, but at a more modest rate (-6%) (Table 9). However, first-time enrollment of Saudi Arabian students dropped by 21%, a larger decline than for their Iranian counterparts (-8%).

Interestingly, “[t]he number of graduate applications from European students declined by 13% between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018. “

What caused the overall change?  Okahana and Zhou offer these very plausible reasons:

Uncertainty over U.S. visa policies, political rhetoric regarding immigration, and strained relations with China have emerged as potential impediments to the continued free flow of international scholars and graduate students. In addition, changing economies in countries of origin and preferences for specific types of universities and fields of study also influence international enrollment trends.

Why does this matter?

Remember that international enrollment in American higher ed has grown for the past two decades.  That population has become increasing significant as domestic enrollment has declined, overall.  Additionally, as many colleges and universities increased their discount rates (the mixture of grants and other support that reduced what the average student actually pays, below published tuition) the high numbers of full-pay foreign students have been especially useful for institutional finances.  Recall Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King’s tart maxim: “Enrollment is code for revenue.”*

This is also not a one-time blip, but the continuation of a new trends.  Okahana and Zhou remind us that “between Fall 2016 and Fall 2017, the number of graduate applications declined by 3%.”  The causes they identify are still in play.

As with other enrollment patterns, elite institutions fare better than the rest.  Research-I universities are actually growing their doctoral numbers, while R-2 and R-3 campuses are losing.

Think, too, of the possible reputational damage to American higher ed.  Inside Higher Ed quotes CGS president Suzanne Ortega:

“We continue to monitor issues, including changes in immigration and visa policy, with growing concern over the possible negative impact to the U.S.’s image as a welcoming destination for international students and scholars.”

Keep an eye on this strand of higher education.

*Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King, How to Run a College A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers .  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018, p 37.

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One Response to International student applications to American universities declined for the second year

  1. Dahn Shaulis says:


    Why should that many foreigners go to the US, unless it’s for an elite school? Check out the Wikipedia for Higher Education in the US. I have made many of the entries as “College Meltdown.”

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