A November 2021 report from the Council of Graduate Schools found that applications for graduate school admission rose 7.3% over the previous year in the fall of 2020, a growth rate that far exceeds the average 2.5% year-over-year growth from the previous 10 years.
Enrollment among students of color increased the most — among Latinx students, there was a 20.4% year-over-year increase; among Black or African American students, a 16% increase; and among American Indian and Alaska Native students, an 8.8% increase. Across all institutions, the report found, business, biological and agricultural sciences, and health sciences saw the greatest increases, while engineering fields saw the greatest declines in enrollment.
Much of these declines line up with economic trends during the pandemic: As the number of COVID-19 cases soared, hospitals and labs struggled to keep up with the high demand for their services. In turn, many institutions and companies offered large cash incentives to attract new employees. And Hispanic, Black, and Native students were disproportionately impacted by not just COVID-19 as a health crisis but economically as businesses shut their doors during the pandemic.
“People have stopped to think about what people want to do with their lives and what has meaning,” says Dr. Janet C. Rutledge, vice provost and dean of the Graduate School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a minority-serving institution known for its work in graduating STEM graduates of color. “There were a lot of people at the last minute deciding to go to school, and it might be that school was the more attractive option while work and other things aren’t going well.”
Program heads are getting creative about online recruitment, including hosting Zoom yield days with breakout sessions — and this has actually proven to be tremendously beneficial, Rutledge says, as students who do not physically live in the state are able to “see” the campus and interact with faculty and current and prior students in a virtual environment.
Rutledge says she saw a sharp increase in 2021 of people returning to get teaching certificates and additional credentials in education, which bucks a trend that showed a decline in the numbers of individuals earning education credentials nationally “for years.” Looking at the applications for fall 2022, Rutledge believes the trend will continue, an encouraging observation given the prevalence of discussions of an impending teacher shortage.
“It’s a very nice uptick to see,” says Rutledge, adding, “to see that turning around during the pandemic” is especially positive, given recent reports that one in four teachers plans to quit after the current school year.
In addition to teaching, public policy and community leadership programs have also seen an uptick in interest. And while international enrollment was down substantially across graduate schools nationally in fall 2020 — the number of first-time international students “decreased substantially,” going from 20% in fall 2019 to 12.6% in fall 2020 — largely due to travel restrictions related to the pandemic. Rutledge says there has been an uptick in international students returning to UMBC in fall 2021.
She attributes some of this to the switch to virtual. While most programs at UMBC and at institutions across the country have returned to in-person instruction, Rutledge says the university has added several new hybrid programs and offers more flexible options even within the hybrid structure that allow students to complete more of their coursework remotely.
“We had a handful of programs and a bunch more [departments] that had been talking about it [pre-pandemic], and now we have programs that had never been talking about it that are starting to see the light” and consider hybrid or fully online programs, Rutledge says. “The biggest change is in the faculty who [now] see that online is not lower quality” after being forced to take everything online in early 2020.
UMBC — which enrolls numerous master’s students from nearby engineering powerhouses like Northrop Grumman or those who are working in government positions in the area — is seeing many benefits from online instruction. Even though students may be geographically located near the school because of their jobs, “many of them say it’s easier to take the class online, because it doesn’t mean leaving work,” Rutledge says. “It’s much more convenient to their lifestyle.”
Online isn’t best for everyone
But Dr. Ashagre Yigletu, dean of the Graduate School at Southern University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in Louisiana, says for some students, online learning still comes with many challenges.
While many of Southern’s 850 graduate students were excited about the prospect of online learning — Louisiana was one of the states hit hardest by the pandemic, and it continues to have one of the lowest vaccination rates — Yigletu says many students have suffered.
“They wanted to be at home, to be safe for themselves, their parents, seniors at home,” he says, noting that many of the HBCUs’ predominately Black students come from households that were even more impacted than the state overall by the COVID-19 crisis. But for many of the students enrolled in graduate programs at Southern, Yigletu says GPAs have dropped.
When one considers that many of the students at Southern were Pell Grant-eligible as undergrads, in-person learning really is best, he continues.
“[Our] students really gain more from person-to-person learning, as opposed to online,” Yigletu says. “It’s not a cultural issue; one has to dig into the economic status of their parents. These are students from economically distressed communities. … Those from underserved communities prefer more person-to-person environments, because we can explain more, we can go deeper, they can meet faculty during their office hours.”
And there are the well-documented disparities in access to technology and other resources that impact students from economically distressed communities as well — “It is an issue that has been created as a result of the inequality of income,” he says.
On top of that, many students lost their jobs during the pandemic, which Yigletu points out impacted their ability to pay for classes. And since many employers were not allowing additional personnel on site, it took away students’ ability to participate in experiential learning opportunities that would normally enhance their classroom learning.
Overall, enrollment in Southern’s graduate programs has increased along with national trends, and Yingletu says program-by-program enrollment is also consistent with national trends. While international student enrollment has yet to return to pre-pandemic numbers as travel restrictions remain in place and some students have difficulties securing visas, he points to one exception: India has sent more students to Southern’s graduate school than ever before.
Students and mental health
But Yigletu says enrollment is one thing. Still, he remains concerned about the mental health of students, who are still dealing with the ongoing impacts of the pandemic.
Rutledge says the same is true at UMBC.
“There’s a big challenge that we’re facing, and that’s student isolation and how it’s affecting mental health,” she says. “We talk about the students who thrived online, but there are also students who are not thriving, who are missing the community they had when they were in person and seeing people and interacting with people.”
Southern’s graduate student association has responded by hosting more events and workshops on campus to give students an opportunity to interact with each other.
Overall, Rutledge says she’s encouraged by “how this pandemic has just transformed the way we do things and has really forced us to really think about what we were doing and what we were trying to achieve and what’s the best way to do it.”
“In some ways, I think this could be a very helpful period that we were forced to go through, but we have an opportunity to re-envision” the way higher ed as a whole is serving students, she says. “We don’t want to throw out everything we were doing, but normal wasn’t working for a bunch” of students and faculty members.
This article originally appeared in the March 17, 2022 edition of Diverse.