Enrollment in graduate school is on the rise, continuing a trend among new graduate students that researchers have observed for the past five years. But growth rates are starting to decline, according to figures from a new report the Council of Graduate Schools has co-published with the Graduate Record Examinations Board.
The report shows the “strength of higher education and the attractiveness of U.S. graduate programs to domestic and [students from] overseas,” said Suzanne Ortega, Board Chair. “There were nearly 2.25 million graduate school applications.”
Indeed, the number of applications received last year set a record, with a growth of 1.2% in the number of applications compared to the previous year. However, between 2006 and 2016 – the years covered by the study – the number of graduate applications increased at an average annual rate of 5.7%.
“This is our fifth straight year of graduate enrollment growth, but the growth rate has leveled off, really, two years in a row,” Ortega said. “This year, the main driver of the slower growth rate is really the lower international student growth rate.”
Colleges across the country have seen declining international student enrollment, particularly in graduate programs and among students from China, India and Saudi Arabia. Some colleges cited Trump administration policies, though others attributed market forces to a cause. (India, China and Saudi Arabia are not covered by the Trump administration’s travel ban, although some colleges have said that political factors in the United States beyond the ban affect enrollment.) At the same time, other colleges reported no decline in international student numbers.
According to data from the Council of Graduate Schools, enrollment among first-time international graduate students fell 0.9% between fall 2016 and the previous year, the first decline since 2003. The average annual increase over five-year enrollment of these students still remains high, however, at 7.8 percent.
The slowdown could also be explained at least in part by the breakdown of the data by degree, Ortega said. Fields such as business and biological and agricultural sciences saw significant enrollment growth, but engineering and computer science programs saw declines.
“These are areas where international students have really made up a large share of 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. According to the data, students from underrepresented minority groups now make up 23.4% of first-year graduating students who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
“There’s this counterbalance,” Ortega said, adding that she’d like to see that number continue to climb. “Given the high percentage of graduate students enrolled in master’s programs and this kind of variation by field, our best interpretation is that graduate enrollment reflects market forces and trends.”
Another trend revealed by the study, and which Ortega said was likely due to changing market demand, was the increasing number of certificates earned by graduate students in addition to a degree. The number of graduate certificates awarded increased by 11.8% between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 academic years, according to the survey. That’s a jump of about two percentage points from the five-year average.
“This is, we suspect, a specific way in which the higher education enterprise contributes to workforce demands,” said Hironao Okahana, assistant vice president for research and policy analysis. to the council.
Ortega said the growing number of certificates awarded matched what they had heard about the growing importance of micro-certificates. She said it was unclear why there had been an increase in certificates.
“The only honest answer we can give right now is we don’t know,” Ortega said. “But educated guesses [are] this whole notion of transciptable degrees that demonstrate skills that can be immediately deployed in the job market, or that are needed for people to keep up with rapid changes in their current field, seem like the most logical explanations.
While individual fields of study have seen greater changes in year-over-year enrollment, overall the number of students seeking graduate degrees is trending at a steady pace, although overall growth is slowing.
“The patterns, to some degree, correct themselves,” Ortega said. “For statistical reasons and for resource constraints, the really large enrollment increases that we’ve seen in, say, the last four or five years, are not sustainable.”