Growing Graduate Enrollments

Gains by female, minority and American students led to 4.5% increase in those starting programs in fall of 2008.
September 16, 2009

As the economy started to decline last year, more Americans were deciding that graduate school was a good place to be.

First-time enrollment in fall 2008 increased by 4.5 percent over the prior year, while applications were up by 4.8 percent. Those figures and many more are being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools, which conducts annual surveys on the status of graduate enrollments.

In a reversal of the trends of recent years, the rate of increase of U.S. citizens (4.7 percent) was greater than that for international students (3.3 percent). The increase for Americans was the largest since 2002.

No national data are available on trends in graduate enrollments for this fall, in which the cohort that enrolled had seen the full impact of the economic collapse of 2008. While a number of prominent universities have cut the size of their incoming doctoral classes, many -- including some cutting back on Ph.D. education -- are promoting master's programs heavily. And this year, as in the past, far more students are enrolled in master's programs than in doctoral programs. (Of the first-time graduate students counted in the survey, 85 percent are enrolled in either master's or certificate programs.)

Among the trends in the fall 2008 data that will please graduate deans this year are notable increases in the enrollment of minority students. White students make up 72 percent of the enrollment of U.S. citizens in graduate school, but the rates of increase this year for minority students exceeded the gains for white students. And except for black students, the gains this year exceeded 10-year averages for the various groups.

Across racial and ethnic categories, most of the U.S. citizens in graduate school are women -- with the percentages ranging from 55.4 percent of Asian grad students to 70.7 percent of black grad students.

First-Time Enrollment in Graduate School, by Race and Ethnicity, Fall 2008

Group Number of U.S. Citizens % Female % Change, 2007-2008 Average Annual % Change, 1998-2008
American Indian 2,309 65.0% 8.8% 5.2%
Asian 22,004 55.4% 6.7% 5.6%
Black 36,585 70.7% 6.5% 7.6%
Latino 28,693 65.2% 10.6% 8.3%
White 226,994 61.3% 3.5% 2.3%

"The growth in graduate education is being driven by increases for women and minorities," said Nathan E. Bell, director of research and policy analysis for the Council of Graduate Schools.

Bell said he was particularly encouraged that the increased diversity extends to fields where for years educators and others have been concerned about a lack of diversity or a lack of interest by Americans. For example, he noted that the increases for women were larger than for men in engineering. Likewise, U.S. citizens outpaced international students in engineering.

The council's survey of graduate school focuses on numbers and does not ask for evidence about why the statistics change in certain ways.

On the gains for minority students, Bell said that many graduate programs have for years now been creating programs to diversify their pool of students, and he said that he hoped the data suggest that those efforts are starting to pay off. He noted that many of these efforts were destined to take a while to show returns.

"The thing with graduate education is that we can only work with students who have completed a bachelor's degree," he said.

At the same time, Bell said, some of this year's healthy percentage increase gains were built on low bases, and "we have a long way to go" in attracting minority students to graduate education.

Just as the enrollment picture varies by race and ethnicity, it also varies by discipline. Three fields -- education, business and health sciences -- accounted for nearly half of first-time enrollment in 2008. And gender mix also varies widely by discipline, with women making up nearly 80 percent of new graduate students in the health sciences and only 22 percent in engineering. Arts and humanities fields experienced -- as they have for 10 years -- very modest gains compared to other fields.

First-Time Enrollment of Graduate Students, Fall 2008

Field Total % Female % Change, 2007-2008 Average Annual % Change, 1998-2008
Arts and humanities 27,102 57.9% 1.2% 1.9%
Biological and agricultural sciences 16,773 55.1% 3.4% 2.8%
Business 62,951 42.2% 5.6% 3.4%
Education 86,014 75.3% 3.1% 2.7%
Engineering 32,609 22.4% 7.9% 5.1%
Health sciences 36,965 79.3% 6.7% 4.8%
Physical sciences 26,940 33.7% 4.1% 3.5%
Public administration and services 20,588 76.5% 2.4% 1.6%
Social and behavioral sciences 33,545 63.7% 4.3% 3.1%
Other 31,184 62.0% 3.2% 2.2%


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