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Enrollment and Market Forces

Enrollment at graduate schools is still increasing, but at a slower pace than before. Researchers point to a market correction and declining growth in international students.

September 28, 2017
 

Enrollment in graduate school is up, continuing a trend in first-time graduate students researchers have seen for five years. But growth rates are starting to dip, according to numbers from a new report the Council of Graduate Schools co-published with the Graduate Record Examinations Board.

The report shows the “strength of graduate education and the attractiveness of U.S. graduate programs to both domestic students and [students from] abroad,” said Suzanne Ortega, the council's president. “There were almost 2.25 million applications to graduate school.”

Indeed, the number of applications received last year set a record, with a growth of 1.2 percent in the number of applications compared to the previous year. However, between 2006 and 2016 -- the years the study captured -- the number of graduate applications grew at an average annual rate of 5.7 percent.

“This is our fifth consecutive year of growth in graduate enrollment, but the growth rate has flattened, really, two years in a row,” Ortega said. “This year the primary driver in the slowing rate of growth really is decreases in the rate of growth for international students.”

Colleges across the country have seen drops in international student enrollment, especially in graduate programs and among students from China, India and Saudi Arabia. Some colleges cited the Trump administration's policies, although others credited market forces as a cause. (India, China and Saudi Arabia are not covered by the Trump administration’s travel ban, although some colleges said political factors in the U.S. beyond the ban are affecting enrollment.) At the same time, other colleges reported no decline in international students.

According to the data from the Council of Graduate Schools, enrollment among first-time international graduate students decreased 0.9 percent between fall 2016 and the previous year, the first decrease since 2003. The five-year average annual increase of those students' enrollment still remains high, however, at 7.8 percent.

The slowdown also could be explained at least partially by how the data breaks down by degree, Ortega said. Fields such as business and the biological and agricultural sciences have seen significant growth in enrollment, but engineering and computer science programs have experienced declines.

“Those are fields where international students have been really a significant portion of the enrollment,” Ortega said of engineering and computer science.

On the other hand, graduate programs have seen an increase in enrollment among students from minority groups, including African-American, Latino, Native American and Alaska Native students. Students from underrepresented minority groups, according to the data, now make up 23.4 percent of first-year graduate students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

“There’s this counterbalancing,” Ortega said, adding that she’d like to see that number keep climbing. “Given the large percentage of graduate students who are in master’s programs and this sort of variation by field, our best interpretation is that graduate enrollment reflects market forces and trends.”

Another trend the study found, and that Ortega said likely was due to changes in market demands, was the growing number of certificates earned by graduate students in addition to a degree. The number of graduate certificates awarded increased 11.8 percent between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 academic years, according to the survey. That’s about a two-percentage-point jump from the five-year average.

“This is, we suspect, a definite way in which the graduate education enterprise is contributing to the demands of the work force,” said Hironao Okahana, assistant vice president for research and policy analysis at the council.

Ortega said the rising number of certificates awarded was consistent with what they had heard about the rising importance of microcredentials. She said it was unclear why there has been a rise in certificates.

“The only honest answer we can give right now is we don’t know,” said Ortega. “But educated guesses [are] this whole notion of transciptable credentials that demonstrate competencies that can be immediately deployed in the work force, or are necessary for people to keep up with rapid changes in their current field, seem to be the most logical explanations.”

While individual fields of study have had bigger changes in enrollment year to year, over all the number of students seeking graduate degrees is moving at a stable pace, even if overall growth is slowing.

“The patterns, to some extent, are self-correcting,” Ortega said. “For both statistical reasons, and for resource constraints, the really sizable increases in enrollment we’ve seen, let’s say, over the past four or five years, aren’t sustainable.”

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