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CGS President Debra W. Stewart on International Graduate Applications

International Graduate Applications to the U.S. have bounced in 2014, according to a preliminary report released by the U.S. based Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).
BY Braingain Staff Writer |   02-05-2014
CGS President Debra W. Stewart
International Graduate Applications to the U.S. have bounced in 2014, according to a preliminary report released by the U.S. based Council of Graduate Schools (CGS). According to their data collections, there has been a shift in countries from which larger numbers of students are heading – with few numbers of students from China, and an uptick in the number of students from India.

Braingainmag.com caught up with CGS President Debra W. Stewart, to get her take on the trends in international graduate school applications to the U.S.

Stewart took on the role of President at CGS in July 2000; prior to which she was Vice Chancellor and Dean of the Graduate School at North Carolina State University. She holds leaderships roles on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Board and the Council on Research Policy and Graduate Education, among others.

Stewart holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, an MA in Government from the University of Maryland, and a BA in Philosophy and Political Science from Marquette University.

1.  What is that one factor that you believe makes the U.S. such a popular option among Indian grad school applicants?

Indian students recognize the value of a U.S. degree. The Indian economy is now experiencing some challenges. Middle class growth has slowed. But the fact of the matter is, the best thing to do when that is happening is to strengthen one’s credentials. And the best way of doing that is by pursuing a U.S. degree.

2.  Why would you say Chinese applications have fallen?

One of the contributing factors may be the huge investments China has been making recently in its research universities. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of doctoral degrees in science and engineering earned at Chinese institutions tripled between 2002 and 2010.
There are certainly strong institutions developing in China. But for the top Chinese students, all the evidence we have is that the U.S. is the country of choice.Even as the rate of applications have slowed, the offers of admission have increased. This suggests the quality of international students at U.S. institutions is very strong.

3.  What are the most popular fields of study among international applicants?

CGS’s International Graduate Admissions survey does not track applications by both country of origin and field of study. We do have data from another report (CGS/GRE Graduate Enrollment and Degrees) on the top fields of study for international graduate student enrollment, as a whole:

  • Engineering, 27%
  • Physical & earth sciences and mathematics & computer sciences, 20%
  • Business, 17%
  • Social sciences and psychology, 8%
  • Biological and agricultural sciences, 8%
  • Arts & humanities, 6%
  • ‘Other’ fields, 5%
  • Education, 4%
  • Health sciences, 4%
  • Public administration, 1%

4.  Where do you expect to see the general trend of international students at by next year - any impact from potential U.S. visa (hence job) regulations?"

The patterns from India have been much more difficult to predict over time than the patterns from other sending countries. Our 2013 survey was one of the first signals that a shift had begun, with the surprising jump in applications from India. Looking back over recent years you can see the rates of change from India have been erratic:

Change in Applications from India
2013-2014 32% *
2012-2013 22%
2011-2012 3%
2010-2011 8%
2009-2010 1%
2008-2009 -12%
* preliminary figure. Final number to be published in the CGS International Graduate Admissions: Phase III report, November 2014.


Fast-forward to our survey findings in 2014 and we can see that India’s growth in applications has continued. I think it’s still too early to say there is a clear trend that will continue going forward. However, we do know that the number of GRE tests taken by Indian students increased 70 percent this year, and this is an important indicator of upcoming graduate applications and enrollment.

The most important takeaway for U.S. graduate institutions in the 2014 data is that universities can’t rely on one sending country alone for consistent, sustainable growth.

For U.S. policymakers, the data represent an opportunity to make crucial improvements to support our competitiveness. Immigration rules developed in the 1950’s are not keeping pace with the emergence of new global economies. CGS is advocating for two reforms that are needed to ensure that international students are still able to pursue their ambitions in the U.S.

The first is to ensure that qualification for “dual intent” status—the ability to declare one’s intention to apply for permanent residence in the U.S. while simultaneously residing legally in the U.S.—is extended to all international graduate students. Under the current rules, students must say they have no intention to stay and work in the U.S. after their graduation.

The second policy change CGS is calling for is to increase the number of H-1B visas available to graduate degree holders.

The prospects of immigration reform are still very uncertain in the current legislative session. But the issue has impressive and rare bipartisan support among American voters: 78 percent of Americans favor allowing engineers and scientists from other countries who earn graduate degrees in the U.S. to stay and work here. Such a clear consensus gives CGS reason to be cautiously optimistic on potential passage of immigration reforms.

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