Decline in doctoral student enrollment in the US

US universities seems to be absorbing lesser number of international students at the doctoral level. The proportion of doctoral student enrollment has declined from 20% in 2006/07 to 17.3% in 2011/12 (IIE Open Doors). However, total doctoral enrollment grew from 108,033 to 117,564, in the same period.

The decline in proportion of international students at the doctoral level does not necessarily indicate the lack in interest of international students to apply or the US institutions to attract international students, however, it is more of an indicator of the effect of the economy, which made availability of financial assistance for doctoral programs tougher. Of course, related reason is faster growth of enrollment at bachelor’s degree level primarily driven by China (proportion of international students at bachelor’s degree level grew from 29.2% to 36% between 2006/07 and 2011/12).

At the same time, growth in total enrollment at the doctoral level, perhaps reflects the longer graduation time students were taking due to lack of availability of jobs in the market. In December 2010, The Economist published “The disposable academic” and argued that “doing a PhD is often a waste of time.” The Nature asked “What is a PhD really worth?” and argued that doctorates to find careers outside academia and “Few academic programmes fully appreciate the true potential that PhD training can confer, or the breadth and depth of value that someone with a PhD can contribute to the world at large; universities often believe that academia is still the most valuable calling for their graduates.”

For many doctoral international students, who typically enroll in STEM fields, value of PhD is well-established, however, the bigger constraint for them is availability of doctoral programs with funding opportunities. The pipeline is not expected to see any major reversion in next few years as the availability of fully-funded doctoral programs will limited. With continued expansion of higher education systems in countries like China and India, demand for doctoral programs will continue to increased resulting in doctoral programs becoming even more competitive.

Dr. Rahul Choudaha

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