New Graduate Enrollments Drop

1.1% decline is first since 2003 and appears based largely on decreases in master’s programs in business and education.
September 22, 2011

The enrollment of new students in graduate programs fell 1.1 percent in 2010, the first such drop since 2003, according to a study being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools.

The total change reflects a modest increase (up 1.5 percent) in new doctoral enrollments, but a drop (down 1.6 percent) in new enrollments in master’s degree and graduate certificate programs.

The traditional pattern in an economic downturn is that poor job prospects send many people back for more education, particularly master’s and graduate certificate programs that may -- in a relatively short time frame -- provide credentials for better positions. Until this year, that pattern held. The new data from the Council of Graduate Schools, however, point to another impact of a bad economy: In certain fields, people may no longer feel that there is an economic payoff (or a job for that matter) from a master's degree.

Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis for the council, said that the drop in new master’s students comes mainly from declines in new enrollees in two master’s fields: education (down 8.1 percent) and business (down 2.9 percent). More than 40 percent of all new master’s students are in those two fields.

Many students in those fields are either “self-funded or employer-funded,” Bell noted. And many businesses have cut back on their support for graduate education, meaning that many more business students have moved from the latter category to the former. Bell said that the declines "reflect the hesitancy of prospective students to take on debt or to leave jobs for graduate school and an uncertain future, the hesitancy of employers to pay for graduate school for employees, and austere local and state budgets that affected the job market and support for continuing education for teachers."

While the job market for new Ph.D.s is tight in many fields, new doctoral students are much more likely than master’s students to be receiving grants -- and that may make people more comfortable starting programs, Bell said.

Many of the trends outlined in the report vary considerably from discipline to discipline, and for U.S. and international students.

For example, while overall new enrollment dropped 1.1 percent, the enrollment of new international students was up 4.7 percent. And while international students over all made up only 16 percent of new graduate students in 2010, their share in specific fields was as high as 45 percent (in engineering and computer science) and as low as 3 percent (in education).

First-Time Graduate Enrollment, by Field and Citizenship

Field U.S. Citizens International
Social and behavioral sciences 86% 14%
Public administration 96% 4%
Physical and earth sciences 71% 29%
Math and computer science 55% 45%
Health sciences 94% 6%
Engineering 55% 45%
Education 97% 3%
Business 80% 20%
Biological and agricultural sciences 80% 20%
Arts and humanities 89% 11%
Total 84% 16%

Also continuing patterns of recent years, women are in the solid majority of new graduate students – making up 58 percent of the total. Here too, there is notable variation by discipline. In some (but not all) science fields, women remain a distinct minority.

First-Time Graduate Enrollment, by Field and Gender

Field Men Women
Social and behavioral sciences 38%
Public administration 22%
Physical and earth sciences 61%
Math and computer science 70%
Health sciences 20%
Engineering 76%
Education 25%
Business 57%
Biological and agricultural sciences 46%
Arts and humanities 43%
Total 42%

In terms of enrollments of various ethnic and racial groups (among U.S. permanent residents), the only group to go up was Latinos, showing a gain of 4.9 percent in new graduate students. Asians showed the smallest drop, just 0.1 percent, while new enrollments dropped 20.6 percent for American Indian students, 8.4 percent for black students, and 0.6 percent for white students.

Bell said he attributed the growth in Latino graduate students -- in contrast to the other groups -- as reflecting the growth in the U.S. Latino population and in educational attainment among that group.

The drop in new enrollments came in a year in which applications to graduate school were up -- even in fields like education and business that showed the largest declines in new students -- suggesting that some students were considering graduate programs, but then opting out.

Percent Change in Graduate Applications, 2009 to 2010

Field Increase
Social and behavioral sciences 11.8%
Public administration 12.0%
Physical and earth sciences 8.7%
Math and computer science 12.9%
Health sciences 17.4%
Engineering 10.9%
Education 2.9%
Business 4.0%
Biological and agricultural sciences 8.6%
Arts and humanities 11.9%
Total 8.4%

The Council of Graduate Schools report also features survey results from its member graduate schools on a range of trends in degrees awarded at various levels. At the doctoral level, the council tracks the annual average increase in doctoral degrees awarded by broad categories of disciplines.

All degree categories are showing annual average increases, but there is considerable variation. The annual percentage gain in humanities doctoral degrees awarded was just 1 percent from 1999-2000 to 2009-10 – a period in which many new humanities Ph.D.s reported difficulty in finding good academic positions. The annual average gain was a bit higher in the social and behavioral sciences (2.3 percent) and physical sciences (2.6 percent), and much higher in math and computer science (6.8 percent) and health sciences (15.1 percent).

Also notable is that the annual average increase in doctoral degrees awarded to women outpaces that for degrees awarded to men in every single disciplinary category – including those where women have historically made up only a minority in a field.

Average Annual Percentage Gain in Doctoral Degrees Awarded, by Field and Gender, 1999-2000 to 2009-10

Field Men Women
Social and behavioral sciences 1.1% 4.1%
Public administration 4.9% 8.1%
Physical and earth sciences 1.3% 6.4%
Math and computer science 6.2% 9.3%
Health sciences 8.1% 19.8%
Engineering 2.6% 11.4%
Education 0.9% 1.6%
Business 0.8% 5.1%
Biological and agricultural sciences 1.1% 8.7%
Arts and humanities 0.3% 1.5%
Total 2.4% 6.4%


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