Hope on the Horizon: A Closer Look at International Graduate Student Enrollment Trends

RJ Nichol
Mar 10, 2021

New research released by CGS gives institutions optimism for the future of international students pursuing graduate degrees in the U.S.

Although she acknowledges that “it has been a challenging year for everyone,” Suzanne Ortega, President of the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), remains optimistic about the future of international graduate student enrollment in the United States. Much of that optimism is based on findings contained in the recent CGS report, “International Graduate Applications and Admissions: Fall 2020″and “Impact of COVID-19 on Graduate Education Access: Selected Results from the 2020 NAGAP/CGS Survey of Graduate Enrollment Professionals” which was supported by Liaison.

The first study focused on a series of questions regarding U.S. international and domestic enrollment trends, outreach efforts and graduate student pipeline issues. The 360 colleges and universities that participated were all members of CGS, the Conference of Southern Graduate Schools (CSGS), Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools (MAGS), Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools (NAGS) or Western Association of Graduate Schools (WAGS).

The NAGAP/CGS survey, which was sent to active NAGAP members in November and December 2020, asked a series of questions, including U.S. graduate enrollment trends in Fall 2020, outreach efforts, and graduate school pipeline issues, among other topics. A total of 217 GEM professionals working across the graduate schools, university office of admissions, pro­fessional schools, academic colleges, and academic programs responded to the survey. Approximately 60% of them identified themselves as lead GEM professionals on their campuses.

“Some Really Good News”

During a Liaison-sponsored roundtable discussion of the report, two themes dominated the conversation: Why graduate enrollment declined in Fall 2020 after an increase the previous year, and how the number of deferrals this year may affect international grad student recruitment and enrollment in the months ahead.

“The report points to some really good news,” Ortega said. “But for the global pandemic, we almost certainly would have seen higher international graduate enrollment in Fall 2020. But of course, there was a significant decline in enrollment, likely due to COVID-19 and continuing challenges obtaining visas. We ended up seeing a large number of deferred graduate admission offers, which in turn are likely to have implications for future enrollment.”

Key Data

Among the findings contained in the report:

  • Total applications from international graduate students increased 3% in Fall 2020, on a year-over-year basis. That trend was driven primarily by increases at doctoral universities.
  • After rising 4% in Fall 2019, first-time international grad student enrollment plummeted 39% in Fall 2020.
  • First-time international enrollment in business and engineering programs declined 41% and 52%, respectively.
  • First-time enrollment of students from China and India dropped 37% and 66%, respectively.
  • At the master’s and certificate level, 12% of offers of admissions were deferred.
  • At the doctoral level, 10% of offers of admissions were deferred.
  • The total number of deferred admissions and first-time enrollment for Fall 2020 exceeded Fall 2019 first-time enrollment.
International Graduate Student

The View from Campus

To share insights into the CGS survey findings — and what they portend for U.S. graduate education — Ortega participated in the February forum with several graduate admissions leaders, including K. Jill Barr, J.D., M.Ed. (Associate Vice Provost, Education and Senior Assistant Dean, Graduate Enrollment at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) and Scott M. Lanyon, Ph.D. (Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education at the University of Minnesota). The conversation was moderated by Hironao Okahana, Ph.D. (Associate Vice President, Research and Policy Analysis at CGS).

The following is an edited version of their discussion.

Hironao Okahana (HO): How are institutions balancing the deferred admissions from Fall 2020 and the new set of applicants for Fall 2021?

K. Jill Barr (KJB): In many ways, this is a faculty dilemma related to teaching capacity. At my institution, faculty are aware that there are a lot of students who wanted to come in Fall 2020 but couldn’t make it, and there are a lot of applicants for Fall 2021. So faculty are negotiating with higher administration about opening up more sections and finding faculty to teach those sections. To make it slightly more complicated, we still haven’t defined exactly how much instruction will be in-person versus online this fall. So it’s a little bit of a crap shoot right now. We anticipate being able to deal with pent-up demand, but we’re probably not going to be able to meet the complete amount of demand that we have for some of our high-demand courses, particularly computer science and information systems. But we’re doing the best we can to get higher numbers that we’ve had in the past.

Scott Lanyon (SL): Our faculty are admitting based on resources — how many T.A. slots there are, how many research assistantships and fellowships they anticipate getting. For our Ph.D. programs, competition will be stiffer this year because there will be fewer new students admitted. We have 845 students who deferred last fall. Should they decide to come, that significantly decreases the number of students that these programs are going to be able to admit.

HO: How is the racial climate in the United States shaping international admission trends right now?

(SL): At Minnesota, we’re paying careful attention to that. George Floyd was murdered here, not far from campus. It’s very much on everybody’s mind, so we do anticipate hearing about it. Oddly enough, we haven’t been hearing about it in talking with international students. I spoke to a colleague recently who’s been working to help students in Sub-Saharan Africa put together their applications for grad school. He said he hadn’t heard any concerns from students in Africa who were considering coming to the U.S. Instead, he was hearing concerns about China, where there have been instances of serious backlash against students from Africa after some of them tested positive for COVID-19. This is a very complicated issue to be thinking about, but the bottom line is that we haven’t been hearing from students about it. I’m very surprised by that.

(KJB): Many of the students we attract for our master’s-level programs are very focused on career opportunities. Their focus has been a lot more on visa acceptance, Optional Practical Training (OPT) and whether or not they’ll be able to get internships. Though they may be aware of the struggles we have in this country with racial reconciliation and some of the awful things that we’ve been seeing, I think they’re still focused on their end goal, on what they’re trying to accomplish. One of the things we can do as institutions, however, is to really make a concerted effort to have these conversations and to recognize systemic racism that we may have never really thought about before. Regardless of whether or not our applicants are demanding us to act, it’s incumbent upon us to do so.

OH: What are you hearing from international applicants these days and how has it changed over the last several months?

(KJB): There’s a lot of confusion. Under the previous administration, people were waiting for the next shoe to drop, whether that meant being stopped at the border, or not knowing if visa offices would be open or whether OPT would be going away. Even though we’re under a new administration, there are still concerns about the stability of immigration policies in this country and what the future holds for them. I think people are starting to feel a little bit better, but there’s still very much a wait-and-see attitude.

(SL): We keep telling international students what great opportunities there are here and how enthusiastic we are about having them join our communities. But that’s not what they see in the media from the U.S. I think it’ s going to be a little while before there’s real trust about what their experience in the U.S. is going to be like.

(KJB): We are trying to roll out the welcome mat in a way we have never done before. We’re much more engaged with applicants and admitted applicants than we have been in the past.

(SL): Generally speaking, international students in the U.S. love their experience here. One of the most important things we can do as institutions is facilitate communication between our current students and prospective students.

This is definitely a year when staying in touch with frequent communication is going to be important. Remaining silent because we don’t have all the answers is bad. All it takes is to reach out to students and say, ‘We know you’re stressed about this. We don’t have the answer yet, but we really value you. We have your back and we’ll do our best.’ That’s really important to do. If they don’t hear from us, they just stress that much more.

The International Graduate Applications and Enrollment Admissions: Fall 2020 report was co-authored by Enyu Zhou, Ph.D. (Senior Analyst at CGS) and Janet Gao, Ed.D. (Research and Program Associate at CGS). You can read the entire report here.

The NAGAP/CGS survey was administered by CGS in partnership with NAGAP, The Association for Graduate Enrollment Management, with support from Liaison International. The research brief Impact of COVID-19 on Graduate Education Access: Selected Results from the 2020 NAGAP/CGS Survey of Graduate Enrollment Professionals, which was prepared by Janet Gao, under the direction of Hironao Okahana, can be found online here.

RJ Nichol

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