Graduate School Enrollment Rates are Rapidly Declining

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A recent July 2022 study found that the total number of enrolled postsecondary students has declined 3.29% year-over-year, the most substantial rate of decline in enrollment since 1951. 

Specifically, the proportion of bachelor’s degree holders enrolled in graduate education has fallen steadily since 2013. For example, the graduate enrollment rate of Americans aged 25-44 with a bachelor’s degree fell by 15% over a period of five years, from 2013 to 2019.

And although women have a 20% higher graduate enrollment rate than men, both groups saw a decline throughout the past two years. Total postsecondary enrollment decreased by 4.1% (685,000 students) in spring 2022 compared to spring 2021, according to a Forbes press release

International Student Graduate Enrollment 

Over the past twelve years, there has been a consistent increase in international student attendance at US postsecondary institutions, with approximately 6% (1.1 million) of all enrolled higher education students being international.

But a 2021 survey of international enrollments at US graduate schools found that the first-time enrollment of international graduate students dropped 39% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, likely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

And a 2021 Council of Graduate Schools (CGS) survey uncovered that the total number of international applications increased by 3% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, the same rate of increase as the year before. These numbers suggest that the sharp drop-off in first-time enrolled students had much more to do with health and travel issues related to the pandemic than a decrease in interest. 

Among admission offers to international students for master’s and certificate programs, 12% were deferred and 17% yielded first-time enrollments. Overall, first-time enrollment of graduate students declined by 43% at the master’s level and by 26% at the doctoral level. 

"We estimate that had it not been for the global pandemic, we might have more international graduate students enrolled at US institutions in fall 2020 than fall 2019," researchers explained. 

But even before the pandemic, new international student enrollment was already falling, according to the Institute for International Education. Student enrollment dropped more than 10% since the 2015-2016 academic year.

Why is Graduate Enrollment Dropping? 

July 2022 preliminary data indicated that total postsecondary enrollment in spring 2022 fell to 16.2 million, a 14.7% decline from fall 2020. 

Experts stated that the most obvious explanation for the participation rate fall-off is the robust health of the US economy, which experienced the longest period of uninterrupted GDP growth on record from the end of the Great Recession until the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Additionally, unemployment fell drastically due to the pandemic.  

And a long period of rising prices for graduate education - especially escalating fees - is likely contributing to the enrollment declines. The net cost of graduate school has been increasing faster than the net cost of undergraduate programs. 

For example, one graduate student now owes four times more, on average, than the average undergraduate, the College Board reported.

Research and advisory firm, Eduventures, tweeted that it’s time for institutions to look beyond the headlines extolling graduate degree enrollment growth and grasp the longstanding graduate enrollment rate decline.  

“This ‘slump’ is also innovation in action: the provision of shorter, less expensive, highly targeted alternatives to the master’s norm, widening access, expanding choice and refining value- and confounding data collection,” Eduventures experts explained.

Graduate enrollment rates are rapidly declining year over year, especially for international students, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising prices for graduate education.


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