US Graduate programs growth led by international students


  • Between the fall of 2013 and fall of 2014, first-time graduate enrolment in the US went up by 3.5%
  • Over the same period, first-time enrolment for international students grew by 11.2%
  • Over two-thirds of the growth over the past decade has been fuelled by international students
  • The main focus areas for international students in the US is in STEM fields

the Bonn International Graduate School of Neuroscience


Earlier this month, the US Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) reported that first-time graduate enrolment in the country went up by 3.5%. The growth, tracked between the fall of 2013 and fall 2014, is the largest one-year increase since 2009. While this bodes well for future enrolment trends, America’s graduate enrolment remain below its peak in 2009 growing only by 0.4% between 2013 to 2014.

One of the main takeaways of the CGS report is the fact that overall growth of graduate programs in the US is fuelled mainly by international students for the past decade. As an example, foreign students have made up over 75% of the growth in first-time enrolment rates into US graduate programs.

Just between 2013 and 2014 alone, first-time foreign students jumped up by 11.2%. In the last year alone too, almost a fifth (21.6%) of all new graduate students in the US are made up of international students. Enrolment by US students pale in comparison, growing only by an incremental 1.3% for the Fall 2014; nonetheless, the increased numbers still represent the largest year-on-year growth in domestic enrolment since 2009.

Looking at the total number of graduate enrolment – including first-time and continuing students – in the US also shows a similar pattern between foreign and domestic students. Between the fall of 2013 and fall 2014, total international enrolment jumped up by 9.4% while domestic numbers only grew at 2.4%. Suzanne Ortega, President of CGS said, “The increase in overall enrolments is good news. But the disparity between US and international growth is a cause for concern.” A CGS statement further elaborates, “The contributions of international graduate students are becoming increasingly important to the US graduates education enterprise.”

The findings come from a latest report published by the CGS based on an annual survey of graduate schools in the US titled, Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2004 to 2014. The report surveyed 636 US graduate schools that cumulatively receive more over two million applications, made more than 850,000 admission offers and enrolled 479,642 first-time graduate students in fall 2014.

The bigger picture

education and economy


The Washington Post commented that the findings from the latest CGS enrolment figures were enlightening as the economy and graduate school enrolment usually shares an inverse relationship. It was further added:

“People pursued advanced degrees in high number at the outset of the financial crisis but pulled back amid a protracted recession and the rising cost of attendance.

While job prospects have improved, the cost of graduate school continues to climb, along with student debt. The jump in enrolment from 2013 to 2014 shows that students are willing to make the gamble.”

With many emerging economies facing a weakening currency compared to the US dollar, it is striking that the numbers for international enrolment continues to rise. The recent rise in US both domestic and international US graduate student enrolment could be partly attributed to the fact that those with advanced degrees generally achieve higher lifetime earnings compared to those with just a bachelor’s degree or high school certificate, according to a study.

Ms. Ortega added, “Greater investments in graduate education and research – supporting both domestic and international students – will be required to keep up with the demand for graduate level talent in the future.” This comes as CGS points out to the uS Bureau of Labor Statistics that between 2012 and 20122, there will be nearly 2.4 million additional jobs that require a graduate or professional degree.

Focus on STEM fields

STEM fields


The increasing number of international students for graduate programs in the US is seeing its influence being felt in shaping enrolment trends.

The most obvious is seen in the high concentration in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math). Last year in the US, almost six out of ten (57%) international graduate students enrolled in STEM courses compared to 16% of US students studying in the same fields.

It is not surprising then that enrolment into STEM subjects hence also reported its highest First-time enrolment in math and computer science courses jumped up the most (21.3%) between 2013 and 2014, followed by engineering (10.7%) and health sciences (6.1%), revealing a consistent pattern since 2004.

Study fields like arts and humanities suffered its largest decline last year (-4.0%), followed by others (-3.5%) and social and behavioral sciences (-3.1%).

The report also showed that while more women continue to enrol into graduate programs compared to men, accounting for almost 60% of all first-time master’s students and 51% of doctoral students, this is not reflective in STEM subjects. In fact, only a quarter of graduate engineering students for fall 2014’s students were women, and less than a third for math and computer sciences.