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Enrollment rates in graduate and professional education programs were healthy during the last year -- even amid the pandemic. Graduate enrollments showed small gains for both semesters of the last academic year, when undergraduate enrollment dipped.

But a new report released today from EAB, a consulting group for schools and colleges, warns that colleges should not count on continued increases in graduate enrollment. In fact, the National Center for Education Statistics projects that colleges will lose 1 percent of graduate enrollment each year from now until 2029.

In particular, the EAB study focuses on minority graduate and professional school students. The report -- based on a survey of 2,234 adults who are current or potential graduate students -- found that minority students are more likely than white students to say that the pandemic changed their plans, moving them away from graduate school.

"More than half of Asian students surveyed said the pandemic impacted their education plans. African, African American, and Black students were also unequally impacted by the pandemic, with 45 percent of students in this group indicating COVID-19 affected their plans to pursue graduate education," the report said.

Over all, 52.4 percent of Asian potential students said the pandemic affected their potential to go to graduate school, compared to 44.5 percent of Black people and 30.6 percent of Latinx people. Among white people, only 25.3 percent said the pandemic has affected their graduate school plans. (The vast majority of graduate and professional students are pursuing master's degrees and not Ph.D.s.)

"In addition to students of color, nearly 60 percent of international students who planned to pursue graduate studies in the U.S. said the pandemic changed their education plans, compared to 28 percent of their domestic counterparts," the report said. "International students not only faced the obstacles domestic students experienced during the pandemic, but also international travel restrictions, challenges obtaining a visa, and difficulties completing admissions requirements such as the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)."

At the same time that minority students may be more difficult to recruit, all students are expressing more interest in diversity as a factor in deciding which graduate and professional programs to seek out. On a scale of one to five (with five being the most important), this year's survey found that students ranked "class diversity" as a 3.24. In the past three years, it has been 3.06.

In terms of minority graduate and professional students, costs may be a key factor, said the report.

“As in years past, cost most often deters students from applying to or enrolling in graduate programs. Nearly half of surveyed students who do not plan to pursue graduate education immediately said that more affordable tuition would motivate them to go back to school. Additionally, 32 percent of surveyed students identified ‘high cost of attendance’ as their primary barrier to enrollment,” the report said.

This is particularly so for minority students. “Although students across the board cited program cost as the top barrier to enrollment, African, African American, and Black students and international students disproportionately shared that program cost is the top reason they cannot or will not pursue graduate education,” the report said. “For example, almost half of African, African American, and Black students surveyed said the ‘high cost of attendance’ is their primary barrier to enrollment, compared to 28 percent of white students, 19 percent of Asian students, and 7 percent of Hispanic/Latinx students.”

Amy Luitjens, a consultant and principal at EAB, said the message about costs to students was "much more nuanced" than to simply be cheap.

Institutions "need to be very clear" in talking about what students actually pay (minus aid available), and also need to talk about return on investment, she said.

Graduate and professional students need to feel that a degree will lead to advancement, she said.

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