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Report: Graduate Enrollment is on the Decline

Overall first-time graduate enrollment fell almost 5% from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022, along with decreases in first-time enrollment among underrepresented minorities (URM), according to a new report from the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS).Dr. Brian McKenzieDr. Brian McKenzie

The report, Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2012 to 2022, publishes the findings of the longstanding CGS/GRE Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees, which received usable responses from 558 colleges and universities this cycle and ran from November 2022 to May 2023.

"We think of this Graduate Enrollment and Degrees Report as sort of an indicator of the workforce for tomorrow," said Dr. Brian McKenzie, director of research at CGS and lead author of the report. "We track graduate enrollments at both the master's, certificate, and doctoral level for major institutions in the U.S. We do that to keep up with the output and production of people for the knowledge economy essentially, well-trained, graduate education-trained people."

During data collection, CGS asked schools to report on their prior classes, McKenzie said.

Though the number of graduate school applications increased by 3.9%. between Fall 2021 and Fall 2022 – the largest rises being at master’s institutions (18.8%) and doctoral schools with High Research Activities (R2) (10.4%) – first-time enrollment saw an overall decline of 4.7%.

The largest decline in first-time graduate enrollment was observed at doctoral universities with Very High Research Activities (R1) with 6%, followed by a 4.7% fall at Doctoral or Professional Universities (D/PU). Master’s degree institutions proved to be the exception, instead seeing a 2.5% increase.

Though men were overall more likely than women to enroll full-time in Fall 2022, of the 508,646 graduate students who enrolled for the first time, 57.8% were women, according to the report. Women were also the majority of first-time enrollees in sectors such as public administration and services (79.6%), health sciences (79.5%), education (77.7%), and social and behavioral sciences (66.1%).

The number of students enrolling part-time decreased by 6.9% and those enrolling full-time fell 3.7% from Fall 2021 to Fall 2022. The report’s authors attributed this particular measurement to changes in domestic enrollment (4.7% fall) and international enrollment (10.2% increase).

"In 2020, all of the higher education sector was affected. And we saw declines in enrollment and admissions and those kinds of things,” McKenzie said. “Coming out of that, for international students, we see a two-year rise in enrollments, and that continues as a positive trend. In terms of domestic students, coming out of COVID, we had a bump, a rebound in domestic enrollments, but now we're at today's report, which shows a decrease."

Fall 2022 enrollment for students from underrepresented demographics also saw lower numbers, with Black/African American students experiencing the worst of it with a 7.8% decrease. Latinx students saw a 5.7% decline and American Indian/Alaska Native students saw one of 1.6%.

"We are certainly concerned about the fact that underrepresented students are still facing additional hurdles to access,” said Dr. Julia Kent, vice president of best practices and strategic initiatives at CGS. “We still have a lot of progress to make in supporting student access to graduate education. We never like to see a pattern that shows us losing potential students."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many underrepresented students had additional caregiving responsibilities not had by most students, Kent said.

“We know that the pandemic and its aftermath had led to inflation and new financial pressures on all Americans, but in particular first-generation students,” Kent said. “We really need to find ways as a higher education community to work with policy makers to address these challenges and ensure that, both for students' sake [and] for our wider economy and workforce's sake, we provide broad access to graduate programs."

Of the fields of study surveyed in the report, mathematics and computer science was the only one to see an increase in first-time enrollment (5.4%). The field also experienced the largest enrollment rise for full-time students (10.8%), international students (16.6%), and female students (16.6%) but a drastic 12.1% plummet for part-time students.

Additionally, researchers found lower amounts of graduate certificates and degrees being conferred to students between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. The number of overall graduate-level certificates awarded fell 1.2% Though, for master’s degrees and doctorates, the number conferred increased by 0.9% and 3%, respectively, during that time.

According to the report, graduate schools will need to bolster the number of students they’re preparing for certain professions in order to meet U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projections and satisfy job openings to come. The U.S. will need approximately 25,000 more educational, guidance, and career counselors, and around 4,300 more education administrators, according to the report.

"We are short of producing those individuals by 29,000,” McKenzie said. “This points to an area where federal funding, government agencies, foundations, and so forth can come together to think about creative ways in which we can produce more education counselors, more people who will help the overall economy."

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