The Missing Americans

New graduate enrollments fall, with notable declines in students from the U.S. Decreases are greatest for education and arts and humanities.

September 28, 2012

New graduate enrollments fell 1.7 percent in the fall of 2011 compared to the prior year, according to a report being released today by the Council of Graduate Schools. The decline follows a 1.1 percent drop the previous year, reversing enrollment gains the prior two years. While those losses would seem relatively small, the new data also show a larger drop in new American graduate students, offset only in part by the enrollment of more international students. In many fields, the loss of new American students follows years in which they were being attracted to graduate school in increasing numbers.

As was the case the previous year, the total decline was not in doctoral programs, which saw a 0.5 percent increase in 2011 and a 1.5 percent increase in 2010. Master's and certificate programs saw a 2.1 percent drop in 2011, following on a 1.6 percent drop the year before.

While the overall gains and losses for master's and doctoral programs are modest, they mask more significant gains and losses in selected fields. In education, and in the arts and humanities, declines in new enrollments in both master's and doctoral programs were down by much more than the average across fields. And health sciences and public administration and services saw double-digit increases in new doctoral enrollments. Here are the total enrollment figures:

One-Year Percentage Change in New Graduate Enrollments, 2011

Fields Master's and Certificate Doctoral
Arts and humanities -5.5% -3.6%
Biological sciences and agriculture +0.7% -1.9%
Business +2.7% -2.9%
Education -9.3% -4.0%
Engineering +0.4% +1.4%
Health sciences +4.0% +17.5%
Math and computer science +0.6% +5.6%
Physical and earth sciences +0.6% +0,4%
Public administration -0.1% +13.5%
Social and behavioral sciences +0.3% -2.4%

With a few exceptions (notably arts and humanities), those figures don't represent dramatic changes. But when the data are broken out by nationality, a larger shift becomes evident. For these data, the Council of Graduate Schools has total graduate enrollment only (not broken out by type of graduate program). The table that follows shows the change over one year and the average change over the past 10 years.

In almost every field, there were either fewer Americans enrolling or the rate of increase was notably less than had been the case through the previous decade. And the opposite is true for international students.

Rates of Change for American and Non-American First-Time Graduate Enrollment

Field One-Year Change, U.S., 2011 Average Annual Change, U.S. 2001-11 One-Year Change, Foreign, 2011 Average Annual Change, Foreign, 2001-11
Arts and humanities -5.0% +1.1% +4.8% -0.2%
Biological sciences and agriculture -0.8% +4.4% +2.9% +2.2%
Business +0.8% +3.0% +13.3% +3.4%
Education -8.6% +1.4% +4.8% +1.8%
Engineering -3.6% +4.2% +7.1% +1.3%
Health sciences +7.6% +11.8% +2.2% +0.6%
Mathematical and computer sciences -4.1% +2.1% +11.0% +1.0%
Physical and earth sciences +0.3% +2.1% +4.2% +0.6%
Public administration +1.2% +4.1% +8.1% +4.8%
Social and behavioral sciences +0.9% +3.3% +2.6% +1.1%
Total -2.3% +3.3% +7.8% +1.8%

Notably, the declines in new American enrollments are not only in fields where the job market for new Ph.D.s is less than inviting, but also in fields such as engineering, computer science and biology -- where there is significant demand (in and out of academe) for people with graduate degrees.

Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said that these trends should be of great concern to American educators. "It's a very good thing that we continue to attract strong applications from international students," she said. "But it has to be a matter of concern that we are falling" with American students.

"What has happened around the world is that everyone has bought in to the American model: you fund your best students for graduate study [in the U.S.] and they will come back and make your country prosperous," Stewart said. "It's clearly time to think carefully about our investments in the future" in the U.S., she said.

Stewart said that the figures likely reflect the retrenchment of some American research universities, which have fewer graduate slots (or fewer graduate fellowships). She also said that potential graduate students may be scared off by reports that federal research support may be harder to get in the years ahead. International students, on the other hand, are receiving generous support to study in the U.S. and have the possibility of returning to well-funded labs.

She also said that rising debt burdens of undergraduates may be discouraging some Americans from graduate education, even in potentially lucrative fields.

Fields With Tough Job Markets

The issues may be different in education, and arts and sciences -- areas showing sharper drops (over all and of Americans) than did other disciplines. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and mega-philanthropist Bill Gates have both given talks in recent years questioning the value of education master's degrees (although those who run the programs question the critiques). And many school districts that used to pay for teachers to earn master's degrees or grant leave time to pursue the degrees are facing cuts.

"I think it's the harsh economic reality facing school systems," Stewart said.

In the humanities job market, some fields have been showing signs of improvement over the situation of a few years ago, but tenure-track jobs remain in short supply and there are many people who earned Ph.D.s in recent years who are unemployed or underemployed. And many in the humanities have been arguing that people should be discouraged from going to grad school. Blog posts such as "Open Letter to My Students: No, You Cannot Be a Professor" or sites such as "100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School" regularly go viral in academic circles. At the same time, disciplinary leaders generally have not endorsed retrenchment of graduate programs, but have called for colleges to create more tenure-track positions and for more doctoral programs to encourage students to consider non-academic careers.

Stewart said that she viewed the declines in new enrollments in arts and humanities as reflecting a variety of factors -- one of which may be American students becoming less likely to enter doctoral programs in fields with uncertain academic job prospects. "It is a good thing for students to have full information about the career opportunities associated with any graduate degree program, and if what is happening is that students are getting full information and simply electing not to pursue a graduate degree, there is a sense in which the market is working," she said.

But noting cuts at many public universities, Stewart said she wasn't convinced that was the only issue at play. Many public universities have cut the number of fellowships in humanities positions and have reduced the number of teaching assistant positions (jobs that finance many a graduate degree), she said. "It's impossible to believe that the decrease in funding for public universities has not had an impact."


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