How many graduate school applications can you expect in the coming year?

As Yogi Berra (probably should have) said, the only sure way to know what will happen in the future is to get the past behind you. Instead of waiting for your 20-20 hindsight to kick in, though, we wanted to share our (sobering) predictions for the upcoming graduate school application seasons to help you better prepare.

We’ve spotted five troubling trends aligning on the horizon that are likely to slacken demand for graduate school–significantly–beginning this year. The conspirators are:

1) Unfavorable demographics

The average number of baccalaureates awarded in the US during each of the past few years has been very stable, at about 1.8 million. Traditionally, about half of every graduating class ends up in an advanced degree program at some point over the following few years.

Source: NCES

While that may sound like a good thing, a flat rate of college graduate production is actually problematic for US graduate schools, which over the past several decades have relied on steady annual growth in the numbers of fresh baccalaureates, which in turn drive growing graduate admissions. That growth trend looks to have finally plateaued.

If your job is to predict demand for graduate degrees at your university or college over the next 5-10 years, the best leading indicators to look at are high school and undergraduate enrollment numbers. Spoiler alert: the numbers are sobering.

2) Reduced influx of foreign students

Historically, foreign students have nicely filled some of the excess capacity in graduate schools left empty by US students. Indeed, in recent years foreign students have been responsible for the lion’s share of the positive growth rate in graduate enrollment. Today, there are troubling signs that foreign applications to US graduate schools —largely in STEM fields— may decline sharply.

Although the Trump administration’s hostile posture against foreigners (e.g. the infamous travel ban) deserves attribution, that’s probably not the full story. The improving economies of China and India, in particular, are providing better employment opportunities at home for the high quality students who would have otherwise emigrated to the US for graduate school.

3) Student loan burden

It’s not news that recent college grads bear a heavy education debt (over two-thirds of US baccalaureates leave school with student loan debt averaging nearly $30,000), but that may have reached a tipping point.

Here’s why: The standard financial advice they’re given is to graduate with a total student loan debt less than their expected annual starting salary. An advanced degree may double (or triple or worse) that debt burden, which is increasingly incompatible with that advice. While people with advanced degrees generally out-earn those with undergraduate degrees in the same field, for many–especially women who are impacted by the “gender tax”, and who comprise close to 60% of all graduate students–the earnings differential is not enough to justify the exorbitant debt of an advanced degree.

4) Chaotic federal policy

US higher education policy is in pure chaos. The uncertainty is undoubtedly affecting those who are considering graduate school today because a lot of this federal policy directly impacts student’s pocketbooks.

The Trump administration  has proposed extreme cuts for the federal agencies that fund scientific research and humanities programs on US campuses, not only threatening coveted research training programs, but also putting at risk a HIGHLY  significant source of revenue at universities where most graduate training occurs. They’re rolling back Obama-era protections against exploitative practices, such as those in the for-profit university sector. They’ve attacked university affirmative action practices that threaten to reverse hard-won improvements in attracting under-represented groups to advanced degree programs. They’ve even threatened the Public Student Loan Forgiveness program, affecting the over half-million current enrollees and anybody who is considering using this program in mapping out their career.

If all of this isn’t bad enough, current federal student loan policies look to be reconfigured in some way. By design, graduate students are likely to be the big losers in any loan policy restructuring.

Few could be blamed for deciding to wait for some of the dust to settle before applying.

5) Improving job market

Graduate programs have always had an ambivalent relationship with the jobs that recent college graduates hire onto. On one hand, many programs insist that their applicants have relevant work experience. On the other, graduate programs compete against employers for those very same people.

As the US unemployment rate returns to pre-Great Recession levels, the only allies graduate programs likely have in an improving economy are stagnant wages. Any wage improvement will further strain the ability of graduate programs to lure prospective students out of employment.

Summary

As Yogi Berra (probably should have) said, it seems hard to keep up with the status quo when it keeps changing. Graduate enrollment is entering a non-growth phase. Applicants, who have always been in the drivers seat simply because they choose where to apply and enroll, will have more control over their fates than ever before.

Passive recruitment practices (e.g., waiting and hoping for enough good applicants to roll in) are less and less likely to provide most graduate programs the students they want and need. This is a good time to adopt proactive recruitment practices. We recommend outreach–that you invest a little in letting people who are thinking about grad school know that your program exists. Engagement with the prospects before they even apply is not only good mentoring, it is also a proven way to successfully drive applications and enrollment.

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Tweet of the year

Same applies to graduate programs. If you’re marketing, you’re not mattering.

Market less. Mentor more.

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People research their grad school options for a long time

How long do people research their grad school options? If you ever wondered, now we have an answer for you, from some data we’ve managed to wrestle out of our system. The average person spends about 18 months researching where to go to graduate school for their masters degree or doctorate. Half take longer than that.

time spent researching grad school options
The average and median time spent researching grad school options is 18 months

Let’s give that some perspective. “Time to decision” is the bane of every academic’s existence. That’s the period between when you submit an article to a journal to when the journal accepts (or rejects) it for publication. Good journals tend to be pretty quick…they’ll take about a month for time to decision. It’s not unheard of for other journals to take as long as 3 months.

The average future grad students tends to take about 6 times longer to make up his/her mind about their grad school options then the worst least author-centered academic journal.

Whereas slow academic journals have process problems, the extended timeline for future grad students is almost certainly driven by uncertainty. They won’t make that decision until they’ve convinced themselves its in their best interests. As they should. They’ll know the right program when they find it.

The take home message: Graduate student recruitment is a long game that rewards the patient mentor, while punishing the quick turn marketer

The Gradschoolmatch hypothesis is not really complicated. When program experts reach out to prospects to explore whether there is a fit, they convey expert advice. Those prospects learn more quickly. That one-to-one interaction provides the help they need to shorten their timeline to a decision.

That’s just not something marketing can do.

Be human. Be yourself. Market less. Mentor more.

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Print your next poster on wrinkle-free fabric

Do you plan to attend a big meeting this summer to present a poster of your research? Do you dread having to lug the bulky cardboard tube around the airport (geek alert)?

Then just print your post on wrinkle-free fabric.

This is, literally, the best idea we’ve heard all week.

We hear the colors hold well. But the best thing is you can just fold it up and shove it in your backpack or luggage. It might even serve as a nice blanket should you need to spend a night on the concourse if United Airlines re-accommodates you from your flight.

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How many people go to graduate school and a few other questions

Here are a few snapshots of graduate school enrollment data I’ve been playing. All of this comes from 12 month (unique head count) enrollment data (IPEDs) and US Census population estimates by age.

First, when it comes to grad school, the real college towns are cities and their suburbs.  No surprise there, because that’s where 80% of people in the US live and work. Still, although millennials in general may or may not be drifting away from urban areas, the millennials who seek advanced degrees are certainly not.

In 2015 just under 4.5% of US millennials were enrolled in graduate school someplace. That’s been a stable fraction of 20-39 year-old people enrolled in grad school since 2010.

Prior to that, the fraction of people in that age range who are in grad school has been growing steadily over the past several decades (because of the increasing popularity of the master’s degree). More and more people were going to grad school. But not anymore.

For a lot of reasons, I think that 4.5% is the key number to watch, rather than absolute enrollment numbers. Why has it plateaued? Is graduate school too expensive? Too much student debt? Has the Great Recession fundamentally changed this in some way? Will graduate schools be able to increase further the percentage of baccalaureates who go on to get an advanced degree? Or is this 4.5% a “hard” cap?

I have a sneaky suspicion that most universities are built on an enrollment growth model…which is to say that attracting a growing percentage of college grads has been key to keeping tuition rates lower than they’d be otherwise. Yikes!

Individual graduate schools will struggle to hit their enrollment targets if that 4.5% fraction remains stable. Because that means competition for students will stiffen and pressures to raise tuition revenue will become stronger.

The last, if not most, remarkable story is what I like to call the privatization issue. Graduate school enrollment at private universities has caught–and clearly surpassed–that in public institutions. This turnabout is kinda stunning. The graph shows that the growth in the percentage of people enrolled in grad school over the past 15 years can be attributed mostly to private universities.

I think there are two explanations for this trend.

First, public institutions don’t spend nearly the same on student recruitment as do private institutions. This is certainly the case at the undergrad level where privates outspend the publics at a rate of about 4 to 1 in terms of recruiting one student. So there is that institutional ethos in putting some effort into marketing that differs.

But at the graduate level, recruitment is so Balkanized finding “typical” recruitment costs is difficult. The spend per student recruited is almost certainly much lower than for undergrad recruitment at both public and private institutions. That’s mostly because nobody is really in charge of it in graduate school. Graduate school deans expect programs to fend for themselves whereas programs assume the deans are helping them out with marketing and recruitment.

When on the phone with recruiters at a public university on several occasions I’ve heard something along the lines of, “And of course I’m at a public university so I have no recruiting budget.” Of course.

That’s just not something we hear a lot when chatting with private university recruiters.

A second reason for privatization is that as the cost of attending a public university has grown, the price advantage they once had over private schools has diminished, if not evaporated completely.

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What the heck is going on at Harvard?

Two recent announcements from Harvard University have generated a lot of press. Both provide important insights into the overall state of graduate education everywhere.

Announcement 1: Harvard’s Graduate College of Arts and Sciences is reducing the number of slots for new graduate students by 4.4%. Funds are tight and something has to give. They explain it is better to cut new class sizes than to cut benefits and services for existing students.

Announcement 2: Harvard’s law school will now accept GRE scores in lieu of the LSAT. Harvard said, in effect, that the LSAT is an unnecessary barrier to entry for the types of applicants it would like to attract.

People are astounded that an institution with a multi-billion dollar endowment, albeit an underperforming one, is resource-constrained. Or that one of the most prestigious law schools in the country sees fit to lower barriers to entry. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t accept at face value the stated reasons for these changes. 

Harvard is among a cluster of super-large graduate schools…there are only about a dozen universities that award more advanced degrees than Harvard. Their graduate enrollment is the size of a small town, with an intake of close to 6000 students recently. They spend a LOT of money on new grad students because they have a lot students.

Harvard’s endowment revenue supports a large number of these students, particularly the research doctorates, for at least their first two years. Most of these students are weaned off institutional money after their second year, transitioning to support by external grants, the bulk of which are federal.

The real story here is that Harvard has actually peeked around the corner to assess how available external funding will be as these students progress through the programs. Like everybody else in academia, they see some dark clouds. The admissions cut is fiscally prudent for the near term, but I think this move is mostly a hedge against the possibility of a downturn in federal support of university research, which will make it difficult to fund all the students they have already.

As for dropping the LSAT requirement, I thought it was a brilliant move by the University of Arizona when they led the way last year, and applaud Harvard for coming around to it, too.

As with the enrollment cuts, a lot of people seem to be missing the point. This has much less to do with saving students a couple of hundred bucks or the cost of a fist full of #2 pencils. This is about stimulating more applications by reducing unnecessary (and archaic) barriers to entry.

Law school enrollment is falling. The prospect pool of LSAT takers continues to shrink and with it the depth of quality. By accepting the GRE, Harvard automatically widens its prospect pool.

Harvard is seeking out non-traditionally-minded prospects. The law firm/associate model is busted and is likely not to come back, but the demand for sophisticated legal services is growing. In particular, there is a need for lawyers with backgrounds in finance, cyber, engineering, “global” and health care backgrounds. Those people are swimming in the GRE pool. And one presumes people with strong backgrounds in these areas plus a Harvard Law degree will be in good shape for employment. 

To turn the corner and become relevant again law schools will need to establish two things. First, that their degrees have some value in the employment market. Second, they will need to compete in wider market for prospects, where their competition is not just other law schools, but other academic specializations potential grad students are contemplating. Harvard’s GRE move is a step to accomplish both of these.

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Research spending by universities is picking up the slack…for now

Most graduate schools are places where a lot of research happens, and with it research spending. It’s pretty interesting to poke around in the HERD data from time to time to take the temperature of the overall ecosystem. HERD is the National Science Foundation’s survey of University R&D activity, and is something the NSF has tracked since before the days of Sputnik. #timeseries

In 2015 over 900 institutions in the US reported a collective Science and Engineering R&D spend of just over $65 billion, the highest ever. (I’m graphing only S&E R&D spending, rather than all R&D spending, because its a longer time series and because it dwarfs (by about 20-fold) the non-S&E research that happens at universities….NTTAWWT.)

Three things jump out at me from that graph. First, research spending at universities has increased almost 10 times since the early 80’s to the present. That’s a lot. I mean, these universities are very, very different organizations compared to when the parents of today’s graduate students were in college.

Second, federal dollars are the lion’s share of university R&D spending and always have been. The running average over the last several decades is 63% of university research spending is on federally-funded projects. That’s a lot.

Third, some leveraging is going on here, in one direction or the other. Either the federal dollars are leveraged to drive other sources for research spending, or the latter are leveraged to attract more federal dollars. My money is on the latter.

Although the total R&D spend at universities is higher then ever, the spending of federally-sourced dollars by universities continues its unprecedented slide from a peak in 2011, where it was over $3 billion higher than in 2015. This is worrisome trend, and more worrisome given the chaos in Washington today.

Given these big decrements in the federal money source, what explains peak research spending in 2015? Institutional funds within universities! Meaning, yes, those big endowments are being put to good use.

In 2015 universities financed a higher fraction of their R&D cost than they ever have before, more than accounting for the loss of federal funding.

In 2015 over 25% of R&D spending was actually from institutional money. That’s a full 8 points higher than their running average contribution of ~17%. Meanwhile, at a 56% share, spending of federal dollars at universities hasn’t been this low since…before the days of Sputnik.

It’s also worth pointing out, almost as an aside but not really, the comparitively low fraction of R&D spending at universities attributable to state funds and to corporate activities. Simply put, state governments and corporations are not major investors in university R&D activities.

In various conversations I’ve found that business people are shocked by this, and typically assume the opposite is true…that states spend too much of their taxes on universities, and that corporations fund universities deeply.

Neither is true. Our universities are federal institutions.

I presume the relationship between federal and institutional research spending is less about taking control of one’s house, and more reflects an age-old pattern of hunt and parry, as Steinbeck might say. Institutional funds seem to function as a buffer mechanism.

University institutional spending looks a lot like it rises and falls against the waning and waxing of federal funds. Universities need to run on more predictable budgets than allowed for by a strict dependence upon the sometimes helter skelter pattern of federal funding. Internal funds pick up the slack when necessary.

Over almost 6 decades, it is almost as if universities have operated with every right to expect it will always be done this way. The only questions are how long can universities sustain a waning federal support for their research mission? Will this plug-the-gap mechanism handle a catastrophic reduction in federal research dollars?

This may be tested shortly.

 

 

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