Reposted with permission from Science News, 18 March 2005

The number of foreign students applying for graduate studies in the United States has declined for the second year in a row, according to a survey released last week by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). But after a 28% fall last year that was widely attributed to a tightening of U.S. visa policies, this year's drop of 5%--combined with a similar pattern in the United Kingdom--has some university administrators looking at external factors as the primary cause.

CGS's survey of 450 U.S. institutions shows that applications from the two biggest sources of students, China and India, are down 13% and 9%, respectively. But a 6% rise from the Middle East undermines the theory that the fight against terrorism has tarnished America's reputation as a welcoming country. That finding also "counters the concern that visa changes (geared toward individuals from predominantly Muslim nations) would disproportionately discourage students from these countries," says Heath Brown, co-author of the study.


Showing up. Enrollments are the last step in the process of attending graduate school, and trends vary by field.

The Asian numbers point to increasing domestic opportunities in the region, says Peggy Blumenthal, president of the Institute for International Education in New York City. "A U.S. degree is not the only guarantee of a good job and successful career," she says. Her analysis is bolstered by numbers from the U.K. Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which last month reported a 26% drop in Chinese applications as part of a 5% decline in undergraduate applications this year from non-E.U. countries. The same trend is reflected in the number of Asian students who enrolled at U.K. institutions in fall 2004. A survey by Universities UK found that some campuses reported a drop of more than 50% in enrollments by Chinese students compared with 2003 figures.

No matter what the short-term figures show, "there's no denying that U.S. universities face increasing global competition for the best students, particularly in the sciences and engineering," says CGS president Debra Stewart. In response, the council wants U.S. graduate schools to step up efforts to attract both international and domestic applicants. Stewart warns that "we will never return to the day when the top 1% of every country's students will want to come to the United States."