US postgraduate enrolment grows despite pandemic disruption

Increased domestic recruitment, particularly among minorities, offsets overseas decline

October 18, 2021
PhD (doctoral) graduate in regalia gown, holding Tudor bonnet cap, sitting on university steps, with sneaker canvas shoes showing. Red and blue grad gown, gold tassel showing.
Source: iStock

US graduate schools saw increases in enrolment in autumn 2020 despite a big drop in international students, although there were significant differences across fields of study, according to the latest annual survey of graduate enrolment and degrees from the Council of Graduate Schools.

The CGS survey found that graduate applications increased by 7.3 per cent and first-time graduate enrolment increased by 1.8 per cent in autumn 2020 compared with the year before.

Gains in domestic student enrolment – including enrolment increases among students from under-represented minority groups – drove the overall increase.

First-time enrolment of international graduate students decreased by 37.4 per cent, a drop largely attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic’s disruptive impact on international travel, while domestic graduate student enrolment grew by 12.9 per cent.

The number of new students enrolling full-time in graduate programmes decreased by 3.7 per cent, while the number of new students enrolling in part-time study grew by 13.5 per cent between autumn 2019 and autumn 2020.

“One of the positive aspects of the pandemic and our age of uncertainty is that graduate programmes have gotten much better at flexibility and capacity to accommodate working adults on a part-time basis and online,” said Suzanne Ortega, CGS’ president. “That had been starting to happen over time, but I think it has really accelerated over the past year.”

Dr Ortega said that about 43.4 per cent of graduate students are enrolled part-time, and those students are more likely to be women and students from traditionally under-represented groups.

According to the survey, first-time graduate enrolment increased by 20.4 per cent among Latinx students, 16.7 per cent among Asian students, 16 percent among black students, 8.8 per cent for Native American students and 1.7 per cent for Native Hawaiians/other Pacific Islanders.

“Although the baseline enrolment number is small, the increased first-time enrolment of underrepresented minority students is encouraging,” the CGS report states. “From 2010 to 2020, the average annual growth rate for first-time graduate enrolment increased by 9.2 per cent among Latinx, 5.4 per cent among Black/African Americans, 6.3 per cent among Asians/Pacific Islanders, and 0.8 per cent among American Indian/Alaska Natives.”

“I’m really heartened by the real increase in the number of African American, Latinx and American Indian students who are enrolled in graduate education, and I think we just have to celebrate progress,” Dr Ortega added. “I do also want to remind readers that in some fields we’ve still got a long way to go before we reach anything that looks close to proportional representation.” She mentioned physical and earth sciences and engineering as examples of those fields.

There were big differences in first-time enrolment trends across fields of study. Mathematics/computer sciences, engineering and physical and earth sciences – all fields that enrol large numbers of international students – experienced overall declines in first-time graduate enrolment of 16.6 per cent, 15.8 per cent and 7.7 per cent, respectively.

On the other hand, first-time graduate enrolment increased by 16 percent in business, 9.1 per cent in biological and agricultural sciences, 8 per cent in health sciences and 7.7 per cent in education.

Rounding out other major fields, first-time enrolment decreased 5.6 per cent in graduate arts and humanities programmes but rose 6.5 per cent in public administration and services programmes and 3.1 per cent in social and behavioural sciences programmes.

First-time doctoral enrolment decreased by 3.8 per cent between autumn 2019 and autumn 2020, while first-time enrolment in master’s programmes increased by 2.8 per cent.

The number of doctoral degrees awarded in the 2019-20 academic year decreased by 0.7 per cent compared with the previous academic year, while the number of master’s degrees awarded increased 0.2 per cent. The number of graduate certificates awarded increased by 20.7 per cent, reflecting continued growth in this area. Between autumn 2010 and fall 2020, the number of graduate-level certificates awarded increased by 9.5 per cent.

Total (not just first-time) graduate enrolment increased by 2.5 per cent across all US graduate programmes from autumn 2019 to autumn 2020, even as total enrolment of international graduate students decreased by 9.7 per cent. The total number of domestic students grew by 6.1 per cent.

The graduate student enrolment survey was sent to 763 universities; 558 institutions responded, reflecting an overall response rate of 73.1 per cent.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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