The United States remains a popular destination for international graduate students despite increased competition, according to new data just released showing that China sends the most to U.S. schools, followed by India and South Korea — although the flow of students from China declined for the first time since the data started to be collected a decade ago.

According to a new report by the nonprofit Council of Graduate Schools, the total graduate enrollment increased by 8 percent between fall 2013 and fall 2014. It says that 17 percent of all graduate students in U.S. graduate institutions come from other countries — up from 14.5 percent in 2012.

Students from China, India and South Korea account for about one-half of all international students attending U.S. graduate schools. But the data show that first-time graduate enrollment of Chinese students decreased 1 percent in 2014, a drop that involves “a relatively large number of students, since Chinese students constitute 33 percent of the total enrollment of international graduate students in the U.S.”

There were other declines too: The first-time graduate enrollment of South Korean students fell by 7 percent, and of Taiwanese students by 8 percent. But there were increases from other parts of the globe:

  • First-time enrollment of students from India increased 27 percent, marking the second year in a row of double-digit growth in first-time enrollments of students from that country,
  • First-time graduate enrollment of students from Brazil increased 91 percent in 2014, following a 17 percent increase in 2013 and a 14 percent increase in 2012. It should be noted that these increases concern a relatively small number of students.
  • Changes in first-time graduate enrollment of students from the Middle East were the largest among the three regions followed (8 percent), a trend that has been consistent for the past three years.

(It should be noted that these these figures are not definitive. The council sought responses from all 498 U.S. colleges and universities that are members but received a response from 62 percent of them, though the 308 institutions responding confer 67 percent (or 72,970) of the approximately 109,000 graduate degrees awarded annually to international students. There was an 80 percent response from the 100 institutions that award the largest number of graduate degrees to international students.)

The data also are revealing about fields of study for international students. Physical and earth sciences as well as engineering — long popular with international students — showed the highest growth in first-time enrollment for 2014, at 20 percent and 11 percent respectively, the study said. There has also been, somewhat surprisingly, modest but steady gains in first-time enrollment in arts and humanities programs; there was a 3 percent increase in 2014, 9 percent increase in 2012-13 and 5 percent in 2011-12.

The report says that the data “indicate that U.S. graduate programs continue to be a destination of choice for many of the world’s prospective graduate students, despite increasing global competition to attract top talent.” It also says that U.S. institutions appear to have become more strategic about international recruiting.  The council’s president, Suzanne Ortega, was quoted as saying:

“Given the growing international competition for top students, U.S. institutions have been developing new ways of communicating with prospective students and offering students who matriculate stronger support services after they arrive. Universities understand that they can’t afford to lose the contributions of these talented students to research and innovation on their campuses.”

Here’s the whole report: