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Master’s degree programs can survive — if universities can attract more international students

Grade Point contributor Jeff Selingo recently wrote, “college and universities are mistaken if they think that any downward trend in graduate enrollment is a temporary blip caused by an improving economy. Rather, what is happening now is a permanent shift in how today’s working adults acquire education throughout their lifetimes.”

[Are master’s degrees on their way out? Alternatives grow as enrollment fades]

Rahul Choudaha responds to that analysis with data released Thursday by the Council of Graduate Schools. Choudaha, a global higher education strategist at, researches, speaks and consults on international enrollment and institutional partnerships with a focus on growth and innovation strategies. Here he writes that universities should focus on “the global strength of the American master’s degree.” 

By Rahul Choudaha  

Jeff Selingo asked, “Are master’s degrees on their way out?” My take is that there will be a shake-up, but the sustainability of American master’s degree hinges on attracting and engaging international students.

[Are master’s degrees on their way out? Alternatives grow as enrollment fades]

The latest report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) suggests that the demand is strong. Only 1 of 8 international students who applied to study for a master’s degree or certificate succeeded in enrolling in U.S. higher education. The report is based on a survey of 351 institutions, which enrolled nearly three-fourths of all international students in graduate programs in the United States.

In 2015, American institutions received more than 520,000 applications from abroad. Only 65,000 students enrolled.

American universities made offers to only one out of three applicants, rejecting over 346,000 students. The selectivity at the majority of research-based, graduate institutions shows that demand for their brand outstripped the supply.

At the same time, 111,000 students received the offer but decided not to enroll at a U.S. institution. Turning down the offer from a student is more likely due to visa or financial issues. But some students would have received better options from competing destinations like Australia, Canada or Britain.

While one of the major trends is that Chinese students are studying abroad at a younger age to enroll at undergraduate and high school levels, there continues to be a demand for a master’s degree. More than 200,000 Chinese students applied to study in the U.S. master’s and certificate programs.

Demand from India is highly skewed towards master’s degrees, and at the same time is an emergence of demand at the undergraduate level. Eighty-six percent of Indian students applying to U.S. graduate schools chose master’s and certificates as their primary objective.

Combined, China and India form 79 percent of all demand for master’s degree in the United States. This dominance of demand from two countries indicates that American institutions must proactively diversify and prepare for attracting students from the emerging markets.

Business programs in the United States had a rough patch after the recession with consistent decline in applications. Chinese students offered a breather for universities as they enrolled in non-MBA programs in finance and accounting. Business schools in the CGS survey accepted one out of six students, a rate higher than the overall pool of one out of eight.

While overall business schools applications are recovering, they are susceptible to any stagnancy or decline in numbers from China.

More than 308,000 students applied for engineering, mathematics and computer science programs and only 32,400 were accepted. These programs have a strong advantage as compared to other fields like business, social sciences or education with optional practical training, an option which allows for additional 17 months of work opportunities for international students and remains a big draw for Indian students.

Overall, nearly three-quarters of the demand for master’s degree in the United States. came from business, engineering, computer science and mathematics programs. Most of the graduate schools in social sciences and education face enormous challenges in attracting international students even from large markets like China or India, as they prefer business or engineering degrees.

While the master’s degree commands a strong desire among international students, it is also clear that the desire is for two broad fields — engineering and business — from two countries — India and China.

American institutions must experiment and innovate to avoid overdependence and strengthen competitiveness. Professional science master’s are already creating new interdisciplinary programs with workplace skills.

Transnational education programs offer new opportunities of absorbing the demand from international markets by leveraging technology and still offering value to students who want to earn an international credential while remaining near home. MIT’s use of massive open online courses offers an inspiration of future strategic directions.