Graduate Students

Stresses on Doctoral Programs May Be Taking a Toll on Applications, Data Suggest

September 16, 2016

D.L. Anderson for The Chronicle
Monica Gutierrez, a Ph.D. student at Duke U., works in a genetics lab. First-time enrollments of Hispanics and Latinos in graduate programs increased by 7.6 percent from 2014 to 2015.

American doctoral education is under fire. Concerns about working conditions and low stipends are fueling graduate unionization drives. Secure academic jobs, in many fields, are getting harder to land. Graduate-education debt levels are rising.

Could all that be taking a toll on the desire to enroll in doctoral programs? Maybe, according to a report on the latest national data, released on Friday by the Council of Graduate Schools. Among colleges that participated in the council’s survey, the 656,928 applications to their doctoral programs in 2015 amounted to a 4.3-percent decrease when compared with colleges that responded a year earlier.

The drop appears to be sizable, but it’s too soon to tell whether it’s a blip or a trend. Council officials warned against making too much of one year’s data. Doctoral applications, for example, increased at an average annual rate of 0.2 percent when the lens is broadened to the five-year period from 2010 to 2015 — not impressive but not indicating an impending crisis, either.

Questioning the Ph.D.

The decline in doctoral applications doesn’t surprise John A. Stevenson, who recently stepped down as dean of the graduate school at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"Doctoral education right now as an institution is under so much scrutiny that people are questioning the wisdom of pursuing a Ph.D.," says Mr. Stevenson. "I would have been surprised if there wasn’t a decrease."

The picture is rosier for master’s, graduate-level certificate, and education-specialist programs. Applications for those programs increased by 3.8 percent from 2014 to 2015, and at an average annual rate of 4.8 percent from 2010 to 2015. That isn’t too surprising, either: Master’s programs are proliferating and often viewed as cash cows for colleges.

Over all, first-time enrollment in graduate programs increased by 3.9 percent from 2014 to 2015. The 506,927 incoming graduate students in the fall of 2015 set a new record for first-time enrollment. Most are master’s students; 16.4 percent, or 83,099, are doctoral students.

The trends vary across disciplines. Applications to doctoral programs in the arts and humanities, which have faced some of the toughest questions about value, decreased by 2.7 percent in 2015, and by an average annual rate of 3 percent from 2010 to 2015. Applications to all graduate programs — including doctoral, master’s, and graduate-certificate and education-specialist programs — in arts and humanities declined at an average annual rate of 2.8 percent from 2010 to 2015.

One-year drops in doctoral applications were even steeper in some fields, such as health sciences, which fell by 12.3 percent, and business, which saw a 6.1-percent decline. Unlike in the arts and humanities, however, those disciplines saw average annual increases in applications for master’s programs over five years.

The field that saw the largest increase in graduate applications was mathematics and computer sciences, at 9.4 percent from 2014 to 2015, and an average annual increase of 18.1 percent from 2010 to 2015. At the doctoral level, mathematics and computer sciences saw a 3.8-percent increase in applications from 2014 to 2015, and an annual average rate of increase of 2 percent from 2010 to 2015.

Increasing Diversity

Meanwhile, proponents of diversifying graduate programs may find some good news in the latest data. For U.S. citizens and permanent residents, first-time enrollment in graduate programs rose 6.6 percent among African-Americans from 2014 to 2015. Over five years, the average annual increase was 3.7 percent, and over 10 years, from 2005 to 2015, the average annual increase was 5 percent. First-time enrollments of Hispanics and Latinos in graduate programs rose even more, by 7.6 percent, from 2014 to 2015.

Black and Hispanic students remained underrepresented in graduate programs. Black students made up 11.7 percent, or 45,818, of all first-time graduate enrollments in 2015, while Hispanic and Latino students were 10 percent, or 39,152.

While the latest data show broadening participation among black, Hispanic, and other minority students in graduate education, data weren’t broken down by degree level. This is important because student activists have been pressing to diversify faculties, a goal that requires more Ph.D.s. Moreover, the report underlined that more than just overall diversity numbers matter. While 40.3 percent of all first-time graduate students were enrolled at top research universities, only 24.4 percent of black students and 32.3 percent of Hispanic and Latino students were.

This is significant, the report noted, because those universities "have the largest research infrastructure and often the greatest level of graduate-student support."

This year’s report, "Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2005 to 2015," was based on survey responses from 617 institutions.

Vimal Patel covers graduate education. Follow him on Twitter @vimalpatel232, or write to him at vimal.patel@chronicle.com.