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Typically, graduate school admissions are countercyclical, meaning that when the economy is down, enrollment is up. Despite the unique nature of 2020’s economic downturn, it appears that this year is no exception. Applications are up in professional programs such as business and law, but also, anecdotally speaking, in some humanities programs. While the economic downturn is one factor, test-optional policies and cultural forces may have played a role.

In a survey by the Graduate Management Admission Council of more than 1,000 business institutions globally, 75 percent of respondents from full-time American M.B.A. programs said they saw a rise in applications this past year. Well-known and selective institutions were more likely to report increases than other colleges and universities, said Rahul Choudaha, director of industry insights and research communication at GMAC.

“We clearly saw a strong reversal in terms of the demand for graduate business education,” he said. “The uncertainty really prompted many candidates to start hedging their risk, to emerge out of this economic downturn with a sharper skill set.”

In the previous admission cycle, only 23 percent of respondents from full-time American M.B.A. programs said they saw an increase in applications. Results from the previous two years had hovered around that number. Last year deferrals were also up, affecting institutional yield rates.

While an M.B.A. or other business degree may have always been the goal for many students, at least some were spurred by conditions in the workforce. In a survey of 2,515 prospective students in graduate management education, GMAC found that more than one-third said they were just now applying to graduate school because they lacked the skills or degree to be competitive in a job they wanted.

Other trends in the prospective students' survey underscore the diverse desires of applicants. Women in the survey were most likely to value the flexibility of online learning. International student respondents, on the other hand, were least likely to report openness to completing a program remotely. While women in the U.S. may have children or other factors that make online learning more attractive, international students in general are more motivated by the desire to study in another location and build a network, and so appear to prefer face-to-face learning.

The future of business school may be a bifurcation of offerings to cater to those different groups, Choudaha said.

It’s likely that business schools are not alone in their jump in applicants. The Law School Admissions Council and the Association of American Medical Colleges also reported increases in applications to their respective institutions this past year.

But professional programs aren’t the only ones seeing high application volumes. Programs in philosophy and psychology, for example, are also seeing double-digit increases.

Take the graduate psychology programs at Loyola University Maryland. Applications to the doctorate in clinical psychology were up 62 percent this past year. Applications to its master's were up 50 percent.

Frank Golom, department chair in psychology, said the countercyclical nature of graduate education likely plays a role in that, as does the fact that the department -- for access and equity reasons -- made the Graduate Record Examination optional for admission this year.

There are also potential cultural reasons why more students may be looking to be therapists and counselors.

“I do think there has been a steep increase in attention to mental health issues as a result of the pandemic,” Golom said. “You’ve seen increases in demand for therapists, rates of anxiety, rates of depression, rates of substance abuse. And so I think this is top of mind for people.”

However, the department prizes its small student-to-faculty ratio and isn’t planning to enroll more students this year.

The State University of New York at Stony Brook also saw an increase in graduate applications in psychology, mostly in its clinical program, said Richard Gerrig, graduate director in psychology. While the American Psychological Association does not collect data on application volume year over year, officials said anecdotally they had noticed increases.

Some philosophy programs, despite holding a different place in the market than counterparts in business and law, are also seeing large increases in applications, as first reported by the Daily Nous, a philosophy site. 

For example, the graduate philosophy program at Texas A&M University saw twice as many applicants this year as it did last year, according to a spokesperson there. That includes applications that weren’t fully complete, but even subtracting those, Kenny Easwaran, associate director of graduate programs in philosophy, said he estimated full applications were up 30 to 40 percent.

The philosophy program at Washington University in St. Louis saw a 45 percent increase in applications this year over last year, said Allan Hazlett, director of graduate studies in philosophy there. The department also did not require the GRE this year. Several philosophy departments across the country suspended Ph.D. admissions in 2021, Hazlett said, and that could have potentially driven up demand for the program, in addition to other factors.

Carnegie Mellon University's philosophy department saw approximately 60 percent more applications for both its Ph.D. and master's this year compared to last year. Officials at Princeton University said that there, too, there has been a noticeable increase in philosophy graduate applications, though numbers haven’t been finalized yet.

At Northwestern University, applications to the Ph.D. in economics have hovered between 714 and 744 for the past four years. This cycle applications are up more than 17 percent, to 874.

While in some cases applicants may be reacting to demand in the job market, in some professions -- such as law and academia -- there is concern that institutions are graduating more students than there are jobs in the field. On Friday, President Biden announced that the United States added 916,000 jobs in March, indicating an economy on the upswing. If the economic trend line turns upward once more, it’s unclear how long increases in graduate applications will be sustained.

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