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International Students Put Enrollments On Hold

International applications to U.S. master’s and doctoral programs increased in 2020—but first-time enrollments of international graduate students declined.

The good news for U.S. higher education institutions is that their graduate programs are still in demand among international applicants. The bad news? Once they are admitted, many of these students are asking to defer their enrollment.

In February, the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) released these and other findings in “International Graduate Applications and Enrollment: Fall 2020.” The report, which CGS has conducted annually since 2004, is based on admissions data from 326 U.S. colleges and universities—of which 69 percent were public institutions and 65 percent were doctoral universities.

According to CGS, the number of applications U.S. colleges and universities received from prospective international graduate students rose 3 percent between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020. That’s equal to the increase schools saw during the same period the previous year. In fall 2020, schools received 352,798 international graduate applications to their master’s and certificate programs (more than the previous record set in 2017), and 202,483 to their doctoral programs (the most since 2017).

Business programs saw their international graduate applications decline by 1 percent, reflecting a subtle but continued downward trend from previous years. At the same time, programs in STEM fields saw significant increases in applications, including biological and agricultural sciences (up 10 percent) and mathematics and computer science (up 12 percent).

Unfortunately, the overall rise in application numbers has not necessarily translated into larger student enrollments. From fall 2019 to fall 2020, first-time enrollments of international graduate students in U.S. graduate programs fell, on average, by 39 percent—that included a 43 percent drop for master’s level programs and a 26 percent drop for doctoral programs.

However, the drop in first-time enrollments eventually could be offset by requests from admitted international students to defer their admissions to the following academic year. Among candidates who were extended offers of admissions to master’s and certificate programs, 17 percent enrolled in fall 2020, while 12 percent deferred enrollment. Among candidates offered admission to doctoral programs, 33 percent enrolled and 10 percent deferred.

In fact, according to the report, “the sum of the deferred admissions and first-time enrollment for Fall 2020 exceeds the first-time enrollment figures for Fall 2019.”

To put these numbers into clearer context, CGS conducted two follow-up surveys of graduate enrollment management and admissions professionals. Of those responding, 80 percent reported an increase in deferred enrollments in fall 2020 that exceeded 5 percent. Such a large number, the report finds, could be an indication that these institutions are seeing the impact of the pandemic, not a permanent shift in the market. Respondents cited travel restrictions and health-related concerns as the biggest factors behind students’ deferral requests.

Institutions are taking additional measures to stay engaged with prospective international graduate students who have opted for deferred enrollment. About 92 percent of institutions surveyed indicated plans to stay in touch via email, while more than half said that they will host virtual events.

The CGS survey also highlights areas of the world where U.S. higher education institutions are seeing the biggest shifts in application trends. For instance, the greatest drop in first-time enrollments, 66 percent, occurred among prospective students in India, due largely to a high number of deferrals. Applications from Iranian nationals increased for the second consecutive year (by 8 percent in 2020). Among individuals living in the Middle East and North Africa who received offers to U.S. doctoral programs, more than 50 percent were Iranian nationals.

And while U.S. graduate programs saw declines in the number of first-time enrollments from international students in most parts of the world, they saw the opposite trend among prospective students in Oceania, which incorporates Australasia, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Applications from this region increased 14 percent, while first-time enrollments increased 5 percent.

Despite the pandemic's likely impact on U.S. application and enrollment trends, the report’s authors believe that these data still reflect international students’ continued interest in U.S. graduate programs. “We estimate that had it not been for the global pandemic, we might have [had] more international graduate students enrolled at U.S. institutions in Fall 2020 than Fall 2019,” write Enyu Zhou, a senior analyst, and Janet Gao, a research associate, with CGS.

The two predict that programs will see continued growth in the fall 2021 admissions cycle. “We remain optimistic about the overall appeal and attractiveness of U.S. graduate education to international talents,” they conclude. “However, it remains uncertain how larger than usual volumes of deferred admissions will impact new enrollment for Fall 2021.”