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Students from China's Harbin Engineering University compete in an international robotic submarine competition in San Diego, California, in 2011. The flow of Chinese students to U.S. universities has slowed in recent years.

Students from China's Harbin Engineering University compete in an international robotic submarine competition in San Diego, California, in 2011.

U.S. Navy/Wikimedia

Flow of Chinese grad students to U.S. slows

Is it finally happening?

For years, U.S. university administrators have worried that China’s massive investment in higher education would eventually mean fewer Chinese students seeking to earn advanced science and engineering degrees at their institutions. A new survey from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) hints that the time may be approaching: For the second straight year, graduate applications from Chinese students are essentially flat. So is the number of acceptances, the first time that has happened in nearly a decade.

China is the biggest single source of foreign applicants to U.S. graduate programs, composing roughly one-third of the total, so any changes in their behavior could have a potentially huge impact. And their presence is quite large: Chinese students submitted nearly 300,000 applications this year to the 285 universities that responded to the latest CGS survey and received nearly 72,000 offers of admission. (The survey’s respondents confer roughly two-thirds of all U.S. graduate degrees and represent 82 of the 100 largest graduate-degree awarding institutions.)

A second striking finding is that the number of Indian students applying to graduate programs at U.S. universities has skyrocketed for the second straight year. (India represents the second largest source of foreign applications, supplying roughly 18% of the total.) The survey found that graduate applications from Indian students soared by 33% this year, after a jump of 22% in 2013. In contrast, 1% fewer Chinese students sought to enroll, compounding a 3% drop in 2013. Offers of admissions followed a similar pattern, increasing by 25% over last year for Indian students and holding steady for Chinese students.   

“We started seeing these trends last year,” says CGS’s Jeff Allum, who authored the report, part of an ongoing effort to monitor the graduate admissions process for foreign students at some 500 U.S. institutions. “Now we are more and more convinced it’s real and not just a blip.”

If that’s the case, the next big question for university administrators is why students from the world’s two most populous nations are on such divergent paths. The survey provides no answers, although theories abound.

One popular explanation is that China’s continuing investment in its academic research infrastructure is making it easier for its students to receive world-class training at home. “The government has boosted its spending on science, and Chinese universities are upgrading their equipment,” notes Robert Bernhard, vice president for research at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “That type of capacity building has led to a bullish feeling about research.”

Allum points to a countervailing trend that could also be a contributing factor. The Chinese government began raising standards for college admissions in 2007 in response to high unemployment rates among new graduates, he notes. So half a dozen years later, the overall pool of potential applicants to graduate school may be somewhat smaller than earlier in the decade. But he admits that “we know much less about China. It remains a bit of a mystery.”

With respect to India, university administrators point to a sluggish economy there as a likely major factor for the spike in U.S. applications. “There aren’t a lot of things being built in India, and there’s a feeling of stagnation,” Bernhard says. “The last 2 years have been pretty tough.”

Allum speculates that U.S. institutions may also be benefiting from more restrictive immigration policies in the United Kingdom, traditionally a popular destination for Indian graduate students. In addition, he notes that India’s track record of applications has traditionally been more volatile compared with China’s. “India tends to have good years and bad years,” he says. “The fluctuations are much greater.”

In fact, the biggest blip in this year’s CGS survey is the dramatic rise in applications from Brazil. Although its total is barely 2% that of China’s (some 6000 applications this year to institutions in the CGS survey), the number represents a 61% leap over 2013. Coming after a 25% increase last year, the 2-year trend has moved Brazil ahead of Mexico as the leading country of origin in Latin America.

U.S. officials credit Brazil’s Scientific Mobility Program as the probable cause for the spurt. Previously called Science without Borders, the 3-year-old initiative is meant to give Brazilian students the best possible educational opportunities. Undergraduates, for example, receive scholarships to pursue what’s often called a sandwich degree—for example, 2 years in Brazil, 1 year abroad, and 1 year back home. This year’s spike in graduate admissions may be fueled by a new offshoot of the mobility program that offers scholarships for a 2-year terminal master’s degree in applied sciences at a foreign university.

The University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL), is one of the program’s most popular destinations, and the number of undergraduates from Brazil has soared to an expected 195 this fall, from 35 in 2011. Their presence is starting to affect the university’s graduate programs as well, notes David Wilson, UNL’s senior international officer: This year, 20 Brazilian students applied to UNL’s graduate programs, up from zero 5 years ago.

Although language is a major barrier for many Brazilian students, Wilson thinks their presence on U.S. campuses could continue growing in the wake of Brazil’s recent decision to drop Portugal from the list of eligible host countries. “Officials decided that many students were choosing weaker institutions [in Portugal] because they didn’t have to learn a new language.” So unless their reputation plummets, U.S. universities seem likely to see more applications from Brazil.