Are We At Peak Master’s Degree? Part 2

While the enrollment trouble at for-profit universities has been making all the news the past few years, graduate school enrollment has been on the decline at traditional non-profit universities, too.  The numbers of Master’s degrees, but not doctorates, awarded in the past three years has been flat. And seventy-five percent of all graduate degrees awarded each year are the Master’s. Therefore, it stands to reason that declining graduate school enrollment can be attributed largely to a reduction in Master’s program enrollment.

This begs the question; is this a transient or have we seen peak Master’s degree? Here’s a bit more evidence from the government’s data vaults that indicated Master’s program enrollment is declining, and that it probably reflects a reduction in demand for the degree. And so, yes, peak Master’s may be something in the past.

Unfortunately, although government data reports the number of heads enrolled in graduate school any given year, it doesn’t report program-level enrollment. Strictly, when we see a dip in overall graduate school enrollment, we don’t really know if that dip is due to Master’s students, to certificate students or to doctoral students.

However, given a few simple assumptions on attrition rates and time-to-degree, it is possible to infer enrollment in different degree program categories by using the number of graduate awards conferred at these levels by an institution each year.

Here, I estimate graduate enrollment as function of the ratio of certificates plus masters awards, divided by doctorates, the CM/D ratio in the figure above. In these calculations I assume a average of 2 years to degree for a Master’s student and 5 years for a doctorate, and 10% annual attrition. These assumptions work as a good first approximation for institutions that have a complicated mixture of programs, times to degree and attrition rates.

Thus, the higher the CM/D ratio, the higher the relative enrollment of Master’s to doctoral students. For example, this model calculates Master’s to doctoral student enrollment is over 4 to 1 at institutions with a CM/D award rate ratios of about 10. In other words, it is hard to have their reported award ratios without having these calculated enrollment ratios.

If reductions in enrollment are afflicting Master’s program more than others, we’d expect to see institutions with the highest percentages of Master’s students most adversely affected. Indeed, by sorting institutions by their Carnegie classification, we see the enrollment dips are more pronounced in those groups of institutions that award higher percentages of Master’s degree relative to doctorates.

For example, the most precipitous enrollment drop happens in the institutional category of large program Master’s Colleges and Universities. This large group of 377 institutions, on average, award 47.4 Master’s plus graduate certificates for every one doctorate. I calculate their ratio of enrolled Master’s to Doctoral students is almost 20 to 1, which is very high. These are institutions that must on average be taking in about 30 new Master’s matriculates for every new doctoral matriculate.

Collectively, enrollment in the large program Master’s Colleges and Universities institutional category is down a whopping 6.5% from their 2010 peak. That’s just a remarkably high shift over a short period, as the graph dramatically illustrates.

In contrast, although graduate school enrollment at Research Universities (very high research activity; aka, Research 1 institutions) is not down, it is nonetheless flat. These institutions award 3.1 Master’s and certificate degrees for every doctoral degree.   At these elite institutions, that means only a little more than half of all enrolled graduate students are in Master’s programs. Since they are such large institutions, as a group they award high absolute numbers of Master’s degrees, but the high percentage of doctoral students enrolled in their student bodies may be serving as a buffer to lessen any dramatic impact of reduced Master’s demand on the overall graduate enrollment.

Reduced graduate school enrollment is evident at institutions that award intermediate CM/D ratios. In particular, enrollment is down markedly at the Research Universities (high research activity) and Doctoral/Research Universities, where the ratio of Master’s and certificates to doctoral awards is higher than at Research 1 institutions. Enrollment at Research Universities had been relatively stable since before the year 2000, but is now down a gob smacking 7.5% from a 2011 peak!

Meanwhile, enrollment is rising in the Medical School and Medical Center category of institutions, which unlike all of these other categories, generally award more doctorates than Master’s.

Taken together, these observations along with what I’ve pointed out previously argue strongly that a systemic reduction in graduate school enrollment is on-going throughout the entire landscape of US higher education. This afflicts Master’s programs because the demand for the Master’s degrees is falling. Call it a burst Master’s bubble, call it a Master’s virus, or call it the peak Master’s degree. The appetite for the Master’s seems to have diminished markedly compared to what it was even just a few years ago.

To believe a reduction in demand doesn’t explain flat and dropping graduate school enrollments you’d need to argue that all of these hundreds of institutions simultaneously raised admissions standards.

The data I’ve analyzed here comprises that for about 1800 non-profit institutions in total. Yet, most graduate education happens in only about 500 of these institutions, which are responsible for awarding over 90% of all doctorates and 70% of all Master’s. Collectively, the graduate enrollment in these 500 institutions represents about a third of their overall student enrollment. That’s a lot.

This impact must not be easy for them to absorb, particularly if they continue to set tuition rates and treat graduate student recruitment as business as usual. In fact, on the phone recently I was told by someone working at a fairly severely impacted institution they are cutting their graduate student recruiting budget. Good grief. That’s precisely the opposite of what they should be doing given the problem they have specifically, and what is happening more generally.


Author: TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch Founder