Recent report showed a 1.7 percent decline in enrollment of first-time graduate students between fall 2010 and fall 2011.
More people are applying to grad school and less people are going, according to a report by the Council of Graduate Schools.
The report, released in Sept. 2012, shows a 1.7 percent decline in enrollment of first-time graduate students between fall 2010 and fall 2011 and a 4.3 percent increase in graduate school applicants. All fields experienced a decline in enrollment, except health sciences, which increased by 6.4 percent.
It’s the second year in a row that grad school enrollment has declined in America. Let’s explore why this is and if those reasons should be compelling to reluctant applicants.
Why has grad school enrollment decreased?
According to Dr. Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, financial stress on academic institutions and on students (student loan debt) are the factors driving this decline in grad school enrollment.
“Public funding is really going away for the education sector and we already know public school systems are very stressed and may not be able to reward people for graduate degrees,” Stewart said.
With less schools offering funding for students (even private schools which are highly tuition-dependent), it seems those students who got accepted but weren’t offered funding chose not to enroll. This is likely due to the student not wanting to add more student loan debt, according to Stewart.
“Students with no debt are much more likely to go to graduate school,” Stewart said. “The financial situation matters.”
Meanwhile, enrollment among temporary residents (international students) increased by 7.8 percent, which further seems to prove the point that financial stress on students and institutions has driven a decline among U.S. students in grad school enrollment.
“Many international students come to American schools with funding,” Stewart said. “If you have government funding from your country, you’re not dependent on funding from U.S. sources…Most master’s students from other countries don’t incur debt to go to undergrad…This debt burden thing is almost uniquely an American phenomenon.”
Are the reasons for the decline valid?
With the average student loan debt at $26,549, according to FICO Banking Analytics, and American unemployment at 7.7 percent as of Nov. 2012, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the financial situation for many prospective grad students is obviously critical. But should it deter one from going to grad school?
If finances are the one thing standing in the way of attending grad school for reluctant applicants, the applicant must consider opportunity cost, according to Giulio Rocca, founder of the website Grad School Heaven and a graduate of Harvard’s business school.
“Someone who already holds a job should consider wages and benefits, on top of any tuition that has to be paid,” Rocca said. “…So, someone making 60k a year who wants to do a two-year master’s program should factor in 120k in lost wages on top of tuition for those two years.”
While Rocca thinks prospective grad students should carefully assess their financial situation, he thinks there are many good reasons to earn a graduate degree that must be considered, as well.
“Employers like those with graduate degrees for two main reasons,” Rocca said. “The first is because these students have specialized skills and knowledge. The second is the fact that the student undertook and completed the degree is evidence of a motivated and dedicated individual.”
Other reasons for earning a master’s degree or PhD, according to Rocca: It may help you to switch careers if your bachelor’s degree has nothing to do with your desired job, the pursuit of the degree can lead to personal fulfillment, and earning the advanced degree may make you a candidate for teaching at the college-level.
Still, Stewart sees unmanageable debt for students that inhibits them from enrolling in graduate school as a serious problem that must be addressed. And the Council of Graduate Schools plans to do so, with a program underway to develop and enhance financial capacity and literacy for graduate students.
“With a graduate degree, we know it pays off for individuals but the problem is it pays off if they’re not already burdened with debt,” Stewart said.
To go or not to go…that is the question
Whether or not to attend graduate school, despite financial stress, still remains a personal decision. The cost of attendance vs. money lost during your time in school (opportunity cost) must be weighed, along with post-graduation job prospects and earnings.
But some things can’t be calculated with numbers, such as personal fulfillment and knowledge. For these intangible benefits, consider if they’re worth your time and money or if you’ll join in the ranks of those applying to master’s degree programs but not attending.
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