Foreign grad applications to U.S. schools increase

For many foreign graduate students, the campuses of American universities have become their new backyards. According to the April 2007 figures from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), foreign graduate applications to American universities are continuing their upward trend.

The CGS findings are part of an annual three-part survey that measures international applications, admissions and enrollments. The number of international student applications for the fall 2007 semester rose by eight percent, following a 12 percent gain last year.

The CGS obtained responses for the fourth consecutive year from 145 schools, eight of which are among the 10 schools with the largest international populations.

The CGS is a nonprofit coalition composed of colleges and universities that together annually award more than 90 percent of all U.S. doctorate and 75 percent of all U.S. master’s degrees.

This is the second year in which the growth rate has increased.

The largest number of applications the study ever recorded was in 2003, the year prior to the inaugural survey. In 2004, the growth rate dropped nearly 20 percent from 2003; in 2005, that number dropped an additional five percent. In 2006, that rate increased 12 percent, followed by an additional eight percent this year.

“It all goes back to economics,” said Ling-Fong Li, Director of the Carnegie Mellon physics Graduate Program. “As more and more countries develop their economies, less of their students will come to the United States for an experience they cannot find in their own country.”

The ethnic composition of graduate students in the Physics Department has fluctuated over the past several decades as a result of changing economic conditions in their students’ native countries.

The Taiwanese student population in the U.S., at its height in the 1970s, is now dwindling as Taiwan continues to strengthen its economy. A similar situation occurred in China in the 1980s.

Currently, the majority of foreign graduate students in the physics program hail from Eastern Europe, Turkey, and India.

“It is so rare to see students from Japan and Great Britain, for example, since these countries have already clearly established themselves,” Li said.

In the 1980s, each graduate physics class (about 15 students) tended to be 70 to 80 percent American. Today, it’s 15 to 20 percent.
The graduate population of the department of chemistry is similar in composition. The department is composed of 43 percent domestic and 57 percent international students.

“As we are talking about relatively small numbers (76 students in the department, 14 in the entering class); it would be hard to say that international students ‘dominate’ the department,” said Linda Peteanu, co-chair of the graduate program committee for chemistry.

Frank Pfenning, director of graduate programs in computer science, agreed.

“I would not at all characterize the department as one dominated by international students,” he said.

“When I stop to think about it, my program does have a lot of international students,” said Henry Towsner, a graduate student in mathematics. “But it’s not something that comes up that often.”

The CGS also tracked the growth rates of applications in individual areas of study.

The volume of applications grew 8 percent for graduate programs in engineering and earth sciences and 13 percent for those in life sciences. Applications increased 7 percent for programs in business, 8 percent in education, and 12 percent in arts and humanities. The number of applications for programs in the social sciences did not increase.

“International students tend to choose long-term careers like pure sciences and engineering instead of shorter-term careers such as philosophy, history, and business,” said Li.

Student preferences may also be a question of finances.

Departments such as physics and computer science are able to employ students as teaching assistants for first-year undergraduate courses and eventually as research assistants to the department, allowing them to receive a stipend. While students still have to pay tuition, the department can provide financial assistance depending on the case of the particular student.

In contrast, departments in the College of Humanities & Social Sciences have fewer openings for such positions and therefore fewer stipends to give out. Additionally, these departments generally have less financial assistance to offer prospective students, which may be a deterrent.

However, foreign graduate students may be attracted to U.S. universities for more than financial reasons.

“International students are attracted to first-class research and teaching, visible through the quality of the faculty and the ranking of the various schools and programs,” Pfenning said.

Today’s international students may have to work harder than ever to enter and remain in the United States without problems. Due to the Immigration Act of 2003, a response to the events of 9/11, students have had to confront stricter immigration policies.

Correspondingly, the survey showed that the rate of foreign graduate applications decreased from 2003 until 2006, when the rate increased by 12 percent.

In addition, Pfenning worried that the psychological effects of 9/11 and the U.S.’s role in the war in Iraq would make foreign students feel unwelcome at Carnegie Mellon.

“I was very concerned about this, but it has not been substantiated by our numbers in the Ph.D. program,” Pfenning said.

“I feel like the international population we mostly deal with at Carnegie Mellon, mainly Indian, some Asian, and Eastern European countries, have never really had much trouble,” Li said. “The biggest issue is usually a visa coming a little bit later than the student wanted.”

However, Peteanu is still worried about the effects of stricter U.S. policies on the future of international students, as well as the university.

“I have anecdotal evidence that more students from Asia, Eastern Europe, and South Asia — our three dominant sources of foreign students — are starting to look to graduate schools in Western Europe rather than the U.S., partially for these reasons,” said Peteanu. “As science spending in other countries increases, making those countries more attractive to graduate students, I think the impact of immigration issues on the U.S. graduate population may increase as well.”

For more information, view the original CGS survey at (