Hey, Non-Profit Graduate School Enrollment is Declining Too

I’ve been munging around a bit with graduate school enrollment and award data for US universities to get a sense of the overall trends and, at least in my mind, the picture is coming into focus. We’re in an unstable period right now and I think most of the people in graduate admissions and recruitment offices that we speak with on a daily basis are sensing that things are different than before. Our sense is that those at the front lines, the program directors we speak with, seem to feel things more sharply. If I had to summarize those conversations simply, we’re hearing stories of excess seat capacity and that fewer good applicants are applying.

The data visualization that seems to tell the full story for the non-profit universities only is right here in this graph, showing declines in both total and population-adjusted enrollment trends. What this shows is graduate school enrollment has declined sharply from a peak in 2011. The decline is a lot worse when the data are adjusted for US population levels. That’s almost 4% below the peak year of 2011 in a system used to growing about 0.6% year-on-year.

Separately, since starting the Gradschoolmatch project I’ve pretty much arrived at the conclusion that graduate enrollment is demand-driven. We look at our acceptance rates and like to think we’re highly selective, but that’s not exactly true. For example, as one data point to illustrate this conclusion, decent applicants (the ones who actually get into graduate school–the ones programs all want) don’t apply to many programs and are accepted by most to which they apply. They just hold the cards.

Another reason to conclude this is a demand-driven market is that for the most part, as a group, graduate schools are really poor at creating more demand. We either don’t adequately support a marketing effort or consider the marketing of our programs as an unnecessary expense. We therefore leave it to chance whether prospects find us. We don’t calculate very well the return on what a modest marketing investment can bring. We fail to see in our cost/benefit metrics how strongly even a single matriculate can drive tuition revenue or perhaps even research dollars from their discoveries.

When we recruit prospects we do so reactively, rather than proactively. For example, for the programs that do recruit, for most it only happens after an application comes in over that transom, not before it. This process of waiting and hoping is not one that creates demand.

Let’s face it, we academics are so crappy at communicating the value proposition of our universities and degree programs to prospects that we’d also probably struggle to sell a life jacket on the deck of the Titanic. When we have tried to be more proactive, we’ve bought into disappointing high cost/low precision/low yield services, when the very nature of our product, the single highly specialized graduate program, requires low cost/high precision/high yield marketing services.

Taken in this light, these enrollment numbers are just another data point I see suggesting quite strongly that the overall demand for graduate degrees is falling. Although this may just be regression to the mean, I also can’t help but wonder if we’re in a period where this is, in fact, a new normal. What concerns me is that the toxic combination of changing economic demographics, the continued spiraling costs of attending universities and excessive undergraduate student loan burden has fundamentally disrupted the appetites of people for advanced degrees. Despite the fact that the economy pays them so well and can’t seen to employ enough of them.

Declining demand is almost certainly exacerbated by the inability of specific degree programs to effectively communicate their value proposition to prospective students.

For example, if you read the twitter and blog internets of the many unhappy students out there regularly sharing their feelings, you’d be surprised to know that the vast majority of current graduate students are actually quite satisfied with their enrollment decisions. They should be, since they put a ton of effort into making their decisions and often without a lot of help from those of us in programs guiding them to us.

The graph above has enrollment numbers at for-profit universities stripped out of the data. The enrollment at for-profits is low relative to that at non-profit institutions, but it is not insignificant. For-profits are actually experiencing a more dramatic bust cycle than are the non-profits. I’ve excluded those data even though that cycle probably shares some of the drive affecting non-profit enrollment, because for-profits are also complicated by a very different dynamic than what problems might be afflicting the traditional universities.

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Author: TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch Founder