Number of applicants from China to campus graduate programs surges despite national decline

Sharon Liu/Senior Staff

After years of upsurge, the number of Chinese nationals entering U.S. graduate schools has plateaued for the last two years, according to data recently gathered by a nonprofit higher education organization.

Applications from China for graduate programs across the United States declined by 1 percent this past year, after a 3-percent decline last year, according to a recent report compiled by the Council of Graduate Schools. But despite this leveling out of applicants, UC Berkeley and other large institutions still attract Chinese nationals to their graduate programs.

Because China is the largest country of origin for international graduate students in the United States, a 1- or 2-percent difference represents a significant change, according to an analysis conducted by the council.

Lei Kang, a campus graduate student studying civil engineering, posited that the number of applicants from China to U.S. graduate school programs may be leveling out because more students are returning home with degrees that may not be from well-known U.S. universities.

Students with degrees from low-ranking universities faced rejections in the Chinese job market because employers tend to place higher value on schools that have a better reputation, Kang said.

The data from the Council of Graduate Schools seems to agree with Kang’s theory because the number of Chinese national applicants to the 25 largest U.S. institutions increased by 3 percent over the last year, while the number of applicants to all other institutions decreased by 7 percent.

This increased competition for big U.S graduate programs may lend itself to the overall decrease in Chinese applicants. Now, more countries are on the market, and applicants are dispersing across the globe, said Ivor Emmanuel, director of the Berkeley International Office.

“They are looking towards options outside the United States, in New Zealand or the United Kingdom or any other European university,” Kang said. His sister ultimately applied to an Australian graduate accounting program because of the heavy competition for U.S. schools.

Still, the number of applicants isn’t decreasing on campus — China sends more students to UC Berkeley than any other country. While U.S. colleges overall experienced a 1-percent decrease, the number of applicants to graduate programs at UC Berkeley increased by 17 percent, according to preliminary campus figures.

In terms of admissions to UC Berkeley graduate programs, the number of Chinese national students admitted to graduate programs increased by 16 percent over the last year, while there was no change at all nationally.

“There had been a lag over the last couple of years in other places but not here,” said Andrew Smith, assistant dean for research and planning in the Graduate Division. “Berkeley is still a desirable place to come to for international students, especially those in China.”

Exactly why UC Berkeley saw an increase in Chinese nationals when the national average saw a small decrease is difficult to pinpoint because a number of factors could have contributed to the trend, Emmanuel said.

Nevertheless, he suspects considerable growth over the past few years in the graduate engineering and statistics programs is a significant part of why Chinese nationals remain interested in attending graduate programs at UC Berkeley.

For Yuting Wei, a second-year graduate student studying statistics, an explanation is as simple as recognizing the growing knowledge of UC Berkeley in China.

“Ten or 20 years ago, people in China didn’t have much knowledge of how to judge and evaluate U.S. schools, and if they did, they only cared about Harvard or MIT,” Wei said. “But this bias is correcting as time goes by — people are getting more and more knowledge of Berkeley.”

Wei credits frequent calls home to her parents to share her academic experiences as part of the growing awareness of the campus. To her, word about UC Berkeley has been spreading fast and will continue to reach home in China.


Contact Bo Kovitz at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @beau_etc.