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Domestic Graduate Enrollment Increases, International Students Decline

Domestic demand for U.S. graduate schools has not diminished due to the pandemic.

According to a Council of Graduate Schools report released last week, also sponsored by the Graduate Record Examinations Board, graduate applications increased 7.3% from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and first-time graduate enrollment increased by 1.8%. While international graduate first-time enrollment declined 37.4%, domestic enrollment grew 12.9%, partly driven by students in traditionally underrepresented populations. First-time, part-time graduate enrollment increased 13.5%.

“It’s clear to me that the increase in the number of students pursuing part-time degrees is an indicator of folks looking for flexibility in when and how they access graduate education,” said CGS president Dr. Suzanne Ortega. “We don’t have the data specifically on enrollment in online programs, but we know that the areas where there’s growth in master’s and part-time are often delivered virtually.” Dr. Suzanne OrtegaDr. Suzanne Ortega

Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, first-time enrollment increases for American Indian/Alaska Native students was 8.8%, 16% for African American students and 20.4% for Latinx students.

“The pandemic has forced us to think longer-term about increasing access and flexibility in graduate education,” said Ortega. “We learned some really important lessons about how to reach students, how to make graduate education available in ways that are intellectually demanding but meet people’s lifestyles.”

Of the 1.7 million graduate students at institutions that responded to the survey that provided the data for “Graduate Enrollment & Degrees: 2010 to 2020,” 72.9% were enrolled in master’s degree programs. Education (63.8%), business (53%) and health sciences (43%) were the largest broad fields of study and the fields with the largest proportion of part-time students.

Despite the growth, the report’s data also shows that African American graduate students remain underrepresented in the physical and earth sciences (3.8%), engineering (6.2%) and biological and agricultural sciences (6.6%). Latinx students are only 9.9% of the graduate students in mathematics and computer sciences and 10.4% in the physical and earth sciences.

While the data in this report does not address the question of why these numbers are low, Ortega said research does support the idea that African American and Latinx students have less access to demanding math and science curriculum and extracurricular activities during middle school and high school, which is where interests in these fields is typically formed.

“By tracking trends and enrollment by field and by looking at the institutional types where students are pursuing their degrees, we can both highlight those institutions, regions or fields where additional attention needs to focus on increasing access and inclusion,” said Ortega. “It also highlights places that are doing things really well, so that there are lessons learned that can be brought to the broader community.”

Dr. Enyu Zhou, one of the authors of the report, said she hopes graduate schools and program directors use the data in the report as benchmarking tools to see if they are below average when compared to national numbers.

“We hope that this data can help stimulate evidence-based decision-making regarding program planning and recruitment,” said Zhou. 

In terms of long-term data, the report noted that from 2010 to 2020, the average annual growth rate for first-time graduate enrollment increased by 9.2% among Latinx students, 5.4% among African American students, 6.3% for Asian/Pacific Islanders and 0.8% for American Indian/Alaska Natives. Dr. Enyu ZhouDr. Enyu Zhou

As noted in the report, the pandemic propelled some graduate schools to utilize new recruitment and admission strategies, such as less or no emphasis on standardized tests and a more holistic approach.

“The pandemic has been a catalyst that has accelerated the rate of change,” Ortega said. “It finally put in motion strategies that have long been discussed, and there’s every reason to believe that holistic admissions practices will be the new normal.”

Other points of note, the report indicates that the increase in applications appears to be driven by doctoral institutions with Very High Research Activities (R1). The increases for R2 (4.5%), Doctoral or Professional Universities (5.6%) and Master’s Colleges and Universities (2.8%) were more modest.

Given the ever-changing nature of the pandemic, it is also important to consider data from fall 2021, which is now being gathered.

“Our international admissions survey is in the field right now,” Zhou said. “This survey collects international graduate admissions and application data for 2021. We’ll definitely compare this data with our prior year’s data to look at the trends and impact of the pandemic on graduate enrollment.

“Also, our survey of graduate enrollment and degrees is going to launch in November,” she added.

Zhou said the report should be read by individuals working in graduate schools, particularly in graduate admissions, program directors and even workforce development. She said that policy makers should also take note, adding that she hopes the report will lead to substantive conversations and more data-informed practices.

Ortega said the data makes visible some trends that raise questions, like why women at 59.7% are now outnumbering men in graduate enrollment.

“We hope that these data are a catalyst to further work that directly explore these questions,” said Ortega. “The answers to the questions will inform subsequent admissions and recruitment practices and policies.”

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