Even as students are hearing that a masters degree is the new bachelors, enrollment in graduate school has fallen for the first time in seven years. On Thursday, the Council of Graduate Schools issued a new report which found that graduate school enrollment in the fall of 2010 dipped slightly but significantly, by 1.1 percent. In contrast, graduate school enrollment had increased by 5.5 percent in the fall of 2009 while applications to American graduate schools for entrance in the fall of 2010 actually increased by 8.4 percent in 2010.
The dip in enrollment is surprising because “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,” says the Chronicle of Higher Education. Debra W. Stewart, the president of the council, pinpoints the “protracted recession” as the reason for the drop with people deciding they are better off staying in their jobs instead of returning to school to seek more credentials:
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.
While the number of domestic students starting graduate school has shrunk, the number of international students starting has actually increased 4.7 percent from 2009 to 2010. In the same period, domestic student graduate enrollment fell 1.2 percent, a disturbing trend for the US’s economic future: The US Department of Labor estimates that 2.5 million more jobs are projected to require graduate degrees by 2018.
In addition, first-time graduate-school enrollment among U.S. students who are minorities showed troubling declines. Enrollment was up 4.9 percent among Latino/a students but fell by 8.4 percent for black students and 20.6 percent for American Indian and Alaska Native students. First-time graduate-school enrollment fell 0.6 percent for white students and 0.1 percent for Asian/Pacific Islander students. A recent study showed that black, Latino/a and Native American college students benefit when taught by instructors of the same race and/or ethnicity. Certainly the higher enrollments among Latino/a students are very encouraging, but the challenge of having more minorities teaching at the college and university level remains.
The drop in graduate school enrollment is another indicator of how the ongoing economic crisis is whittling away at young people’s opportunities and their futures. More and more, universities are courting students of means; money, not only one’s academic merits and other achievements, is increasingly playing a factor in college admissions. Noting the same happening at the graduate level, Stewart says that “if we get to the point where only people with significant bank accounts can afford graduate education, the country is doomed.”
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