New Graduate-Student Enrollment Dips for First Time in 7 Years

September 22, 2011

The number of new students enrolled in the nation's graduate schools in the fall of 2010 fell for the first time in seven years, even though applications for graduate programs that began that year had increased, says a new report by the Council of Graduate Schools.

Between the fall of 2009 and the fall of 2010, enrollment of new students fell by 1.1 percent, according to the report, "Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2000 to 2010," which was released today. In comparison, the enrollment of new graduate students a year earlier, in the fall of 2009, had increased by 5.5 percent from the year before. Applications to American graduate schools for the fall of 2010 were up by 8.4 percent from the previous year, the report says.

The report doesn't explain why the drop in enrollment occurred at a time when graduate programs would normally be packed. Historically, an economic downturn drives up the number of first-time graduate students as they seek advanced degrees to upgrade their skills to get an edge in the job market. But Debra W. Stewart, president of the council, said anecdotal evidence, from graduate students and the graduate schools that are members of the council, point to the protracted recession as the likely culprit.

"When a recession goes on as long as this one has, if people still have a job, they don't want to leave it to go to graduate school," Ms. Stewart said. "They're not going to do that if they believe they have one of the few jobs left out there."

Graduate students who would have pursued degrees in fields that aren't known for awarding stipends—such as education, business, and public administration, which all saw declines in enrollment, according to the report—might have also seen the money they saved to pay for their education dwindle as they tried to ride out the recession, Ms. Stewart said.

Other possible reasons for the first-time enrollment dip: Companies that once picked up the tab for employees to go to graduate school have cut that perk in the tight economy, federal policy has triggered the phase-out of subsidized graduation-school loans in 2012, and cash-strapped public institutions—which enroll the majority of graduate students—now have fewer stipends to award.

"The bottom line is, It's about money," Ms. Stewart said.

Domestic Drop

About half of the 445,000 students who were new to graduate school in 2010 were enrolled in one of three broad fields: education, business, or health sciences. The majority of those students, 84 percent, were seeking master's degrees or graduate certificates.

International students saw their ranks rebound from a year earlier, with first-time enrollment for them up by 4.7 percent from the year before. The number of domestic students entering graduate school for the first time was down by 1.2 percent, the report says.

Over the past decade, growth in first-time graduate-school enrollment among U.S. citizens has been driven by minority students whose gains from year to year typically outpace those of white students. However, the report says that Hispanic students, whose numbers were up 4.9 percent, were the only minority group to see an increase in first-time graduate enrollment in 2010.

The numbers for American Indian and Alaska Native students dropped by 20.6 percent, the number for black students fell by 8.4 percent, and the number for Asian/Pacific Islander students decreased by 0.1 percent. First-time enrollment for white students fell slightly, by 0.6 percent.

Troubling Trendline

Ms. Stewart says the data on first-time graduate students are troubling.

"The decline in first-time enrollment, particularly across most ethnic groups, is a concern given changing demographics and the need for more students from all groups to pursue graduate degrees so that America will have the talent needed to remain competitive," she said.

With 2.5-million more jobs projected to require advanced degrees by 2018, according to U.S. Department of Labor estimates, "our numbers are going in the wrong direction," she said.

The report also looks at overall graduate enrollment, which was dominated by women in 2010. Men made up about 40 percent of all graduate students in 2010 and, for the second year in a row, women earned the majority of doctoral degrees. Another key finding: Total enrollment in doctoral programs rose 3.3 percent from a year earlier, while enrollment in master's degree and certificate-level programs increased by only 0.5 percent.

"Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2000 to 2010" contains data from an annual survey of American graduate schools that is co-sponsored by the council and the Graduate Record Examinations Board. The 655 institutions that responded to the survey received a total of 1.8 million applications, most of them for programs in business, engineering, and social and behavioral sciences.