US Graduate School Enrollment Has Been Flat Since 2010

Peak Graduate Enrollment (1)This is pretty interesting. It may be the proverbial canary in the coal mine… or it may just be regression to the mean. US graduate school enrollment has been flat since 2010, at just below 3 million heads per year. We haven’t seen anything like this over the past 30 years, a period for which we’ve enjoyed small but steady year-on-year increases. What factors might be responsible for this effect? What does it mean for graduate schools and prospective students?

First, the data. They are fall enrollment head counts from the IPEDS data center, a US Department of Education enterprise. Due to their validation process, there is a bit of a lag, such that the most recent available data is for 2103. Fall enrollment is used because the time series is longer. Another enrollment variable that IPEDS keeps, 12 month enrollment, shows that flat enrollment extends to 2014.

I’ve omitted data for the year 1999, which seem to have a wildly spurious under count relative to its neighboring years. I’ve included enrollment data for all non-profit (both public and private) and for-profit universities that award a masters or higher degree. Of the 2176 institutions in this group, enrollment data was missing for only about 50. This is a comprehensive picture because these are, in essence, anywhere that anybody goes to graduate school in the US for whatever field of specialization.

What factors might be responsible for this plateau in graduate enrollment?

  1. Economic prosperity-Probably not. Graduate school is widely thought to be anti-cyclical. The idea is to time your graduate education during a recession, so that jobs are more plentiful when you emerge. Inspecting the graph here sort of disputes that view. First, there are never enough recessions for this idea to explain the overall enrollment growth that has occurred up until recently. Furthermore, it is hard to discern enrollment boosts in recessions and pauses during the inter-recession periods with more than wishful thinking. Perhaps the best argument against this idea, however, is that although we are now a few years out of the recession, the US economy has hardly been bicycling on spinners over this period. The Great Recession has had long-lived negative effects that may have become baked-in to thwart economic progress.
  2. Declining enrollment at for-profit universities. No effect. The graph above looks the same if for-profit enrollment is removed from the data. Although it is true that enrollment is dropping at for-profits due to their notorious problems, graduate enrollment in the for-profit university sector is dropping at a lesser rate than undergraduate enrollment. Furthermore, the graduate enrollment at for-profits is only a small fraction of the overall graduate enrollment in the US. The simple fact is that enrollment at non-profit public and private universities is flat all on its own.
  3. Demographics-Quite possibly. The rate of growth has also slowed markedly for undergraduate enrollment in college. Since 2011, undergraduate enrollment has also been flat, holding pretty steady at 9.1 million heads (as a general rule of thumb, graduate enrollment stays around 1/3rd of undergraduate enrollment). Since about half of all baccalaureates earn graduate degrees, flat undergraduate enrollment growth predicts flat baccalaureate award rates, suggesting that the flatness in graduate enrollment will persist for some time to come.
  4. Tuition cost/Student loan burden-Possibly. College students have been graduating with increasingly higher student loan debt as they’ve been asked to bear a higher share of their cost of education. More people may be avoiding graduate school because the tuition cost is too high and/or they are unwilling to take on additional debt, despite the clear economic benefits of an advanced degree.
  5. Flat research spending-Quite Possibly. No matter the cost to students, producing people with advanced degrees is expensive for universities. There are a couple of reasons to believe that university research activity is, in fact, the strongest driver of overall graduate student enrollment, both of which I intend to write more about shortly. As research funding is constrained, the demand for and resources to train graduate student researchers is also constrained. The flat graduate enrollment we see above mirrors the flat to declining research spending over the same period. Not coincidentally, US universities also haven’t experienced year-to-year research spending this flat over the same period for over 30 years. Austerity is coming to roost at the university and it is likely impacting the vitality of graduate programs.

Flat graduate student enrollment seems is probably due to a combination of these latter three factors, in my opinion. The demographics and loan burden suggest to me that competition between programs for outstanding students, which is always high, will prove even higher. Fewer such people are considering graduate school and the value proposition for those who do attend will need to be stronger than it appears today. We hear data points here and there from our clients in the enrollment office trenches that suggest universities have already entered a period of evaluating their programmatic needs and preparing to mothball graduate programs that cannot attract enough talent. This may be the new normal.

The flat research spending means that fewer slots are available for students. Given the extraordinarily inefficient way people go about finding their graduate school options, this could negatively impact those students seeking research experiences as either doctoral or masters students, due to increasing competition between applicants for the available resources. Such students may need to widen their application strategies to ensure they find a program that not only fits, but is likely to have the resources to carry them through.

Finally, persistent flat enrollments is probably not a good thing in the overall picture of what a thriving knowledge economy needs. There is no reason at all to believe that the US economy suffers from too many highly educated workers, given the simple observation that unemployment rates are the lowest and earnings the highest for the most highly educated. A failure to produce more workers with advanced degrees could stymie the growth of companies and industries that depend upon such highly educated talent.






How To Become A Top-Ranked Graduate Program

rankings-300x219We spend a lot of time attempting to understand (and solve) the problems students face in finding a graduate program that fits.

Our data indicate the typical successful student researches a dozen or fewer programs and applies to only 3.

Let’s couple that statistic to their scale of opportunity. In a typical academic field there are about 300 universities each offering a single graduate program that the typical student might have an interest in.

Thus, a typical student only applies to 1 out of 100 programs that might be suitable. Or, put more starkly, there is a 99% chance a student who should be interested in your program won’t apply.  There may be many reasons why a student doesn’t apply to your program, but the most common reason is they don’t even know it exists.

When a student is discovered by a program on Gradschoolmatch the most common feedback we hear from them is, “I found interesting programs I never would have never known otherwise(!!)”  No matter whether your program actually found them first, it is your subsequent guidance that generates strong interest that increases the probability they’ll apply.

To find prospects that you might like, make a habit to login on Gradschoolmatch once or twice a week for 5 or 10 minutes. Go through your Match or do a quick custom Search for prospects that have backgrounds and interests that seem to fit your program. Bookmark their profile, and send a brief, helpful message. That little bit of effort changes trajectories.

And that’s about all it takes to improve your program’s chances of making their 1% list.

Or, to put it more brightly, you become a top-ranked graduate program every time an applicant puts you in their top 1% list. And of all the rankings lists out there, let’s simplify this down to the core issue: their list is the only one that really matters.



Mizzou Graduate Students Rise To Protest Lack of Institutional Support

You may not have read about the graduate student unrest that erupted at Mizzou recently.  But you should be aware that it could have occurred on the campus of virtually any other research university in the country.

It started when an unidentified someone in the graduate school administration at the University of Missouri-Columbia made a very clumsy decision to cancel a health insurance subsidy provided to graduate students who are on teaching and research assistantships.

Although that decision was quickly reversed, it never should have been made in the first place and the gaping wound it opened won’t close as quickly.

Mizzou graduate students on assistantships receive a monthly stipend in exchange for their time spent teaching and conducting research. For most, their tuition is also waived, or heavily discounted. For as long as anybody can recall, these TA’s and GRA’s have always straddled a bizzaro-world by virtue of being at once part-student and also part-employee. And typically they work full-time in both capacities for several years.

They have the rights, privileges and responsibilities of any other student on campus, but typically receive only a slice of the benefits extended to other university employees. To be sure, universities are subject to external pressures that contribute to this state of affairs, ranging from external funding pipelines to complicated federal and state rules. Collectively, however, they bear a responsibility for not working together to better control these external forces in a way that better accommodates the needs of graduate assistants.

Graduate assistants tend to be paid less than other full time employees of similar rank/duties. And rather than extend to these students access to the university employee health plan, a general solution is to provide graduate assistants a supplement to their stipend in order to purchase health insurance in the market. These supplements are less costly than putting the students on an employee health plan.

And that is where the rub lies. Stipends, tuition waivers and employee benefits cost a university money, whereas it is difficult for administrators to not think of students as people who should pay for access to a university and thereby provide revenue. TA’s and GRA’s in fact do drive revenue, but do so indirectly. Good teaching and good research helps to generate undergrad tuition and draw in research grants.

Administrators have the responsibility of watching the larger funds flow, and can easily lose the forest for the trees. In default mode, they tend to seek out ways to work the nebulous status of graduate assistants as student/employee hybrids to cut costs and to otherwise deal with them as if they are, well, just students. At Mizzou, in this instance the graduate students were treated in a way they would never treat their regular employees: they received an email announcing that in two weeks their insurance subsidy will be canceled.


I think it is fair to say that this Mizzou incident exposes a deeper and wider problem, one of administrators taking graduate students for granted. Minimally, these compensation packages should acknowledge the substantial contributions that graduate students provide to the educational and research missions on their campuses…and thus to the overall bottom lines of the revenue streams.

It is well past the time to do something about this problem. Administrators need to understand what most faculty get, as exemplified at Mizzou where the faculty have risen in protest with the students. The best students, the ones we most want to attract to our programs, the TA’s and GRA’s who will be the best at what they do and who will drive real success on our campuses and in our research groups, have scores of other universities that they can attend to specialize in virtually the exact same field of study. The smart administrator is the one who will resource these graduate students and their programs commensurate with their contributions.

Imagine a research university where graduate students suddenly stopped enrolling, and from which every graduate student who was there suddenly dropped what they were doing and left. Forever. As a faculty member I can tell you that it would quickly become a very craptastic place to work.

In full disclosure, I’m a Mizzou grad. Twice (BS ’84 and PhD ’88). My monthly stipend of $600 as a GRA was insufficient to live on but also all the motivation I needed to finish the PhD in 4 years. Half-way through new federal rules subjected that stipend to income taxes, worsening the situation for students who followed. Fortunately, I was grandfathered in to the “nontaxable scholarship” scheme of my time. Mizzou was a great place to learn and to train as a researcher, and I’m certain it is even better today. This problem of how administrators treat graduate students isn’t Mizzou’s alone and it isn’t a new problem, either.


The Decline of For-Profit Universities

For-profit universities, such as University of Phoenix and ITT, have filled an educational gap since the mid 1970’s. Originally conceptualized as a vehicle for working adults to develop new skills and seek career opportunities, for-profit schools provided a less expensive and more focused alternative to attending two and four year colleges and universities.

At the height of their success, for-profit universities were very profitable; in 2010, Phoenix had over 460,000 enrolled students, with its parent company (Apollo Education Group) earning revenues of $5 billion.

As of early 2015, the University of Phoenix had 213,000 enrolled students, less than half of its 2010 numbers. In less than five years, how did the behemoth of for-profit universities experience such a sharp decline?


A Lack of Quality Education at For-Profit Universities

At their inception, for-profit universities had relatively strict admissions requirements to ensure the right demographic of applicants. For example, Phoenix only accepted incoming students that were over the age of 23, had previous work and collegiate experience, and worked full time. These requirements kept admissions numbers hovering around 100,000 students in 1995.

After Apollo Education Group went public in 1995, these numbers were too low for investors; therefore, admissions requirements were lowered, and more and more students flooded into the university’s campuses nationwide.

As a result of the IPO, as well as federal legislation that allowed universities to operate more of their courses online, many additional for-profit universities popped up in the mid 2000’s that followed the Phoenix business model.

As revenue soared, the quality of education at for-profit universities plummeted. With high volumes of students and less emphasis on stringent admissions requirements, over 100 campuses closed in late 2012 after enrollment dropped substantially.


Competition in the For-Profit Space

With President Obama’s recent proposal to make two years of community college free of charge, for-profit universities are likely to face increased competition.

Although more traditional universities have experienced significant hikes in tuition, for-profit schools have also upped costs. Tuition and fees at for-profit universities averaged over $15,000 a year in 2014, compared with just under $9,000 a year for in-state students at a 4 year college. Two year colleges and universities cost even less, at around $3,500 a year.

With a variety of less expensive in-state educational opportunities, less and less prospective students are turning to for-profit schools.


The Role of Debt in For-Profit University Enrollment

One aspect of the proposed presidential legislation for community colleges is providing funds specifically for students who are deemed responsible and dedicated, not simply every student that needs financial assistance. The program will require students that receive financial aid to maintain a 2.0 GPA, as well as contribute community service hours and work with a mentor.

These requirements have likely been set in place to help alleviate issues with students defaulting on their loans. A major issue amongst for-profit universities is the inability of its students to repay their loans in a timely manner, if at all.

Around 90 percent of Phoenix students use federal grants or loans to pay their tuition; of that number, only 36 percent of those students repay their loans, compared with 54 percent of students at traditional universities.

While for-profit schools initially saw large increases in enrollment as they weakened their admissions requirements, that growth was not sustainable. Students unprepared for professional coursework struggle to earn degrees. In 2008, for-profit colleges had graduated only 22 percent of their first-time, full-time students.


The Future of For-Profit Colleges and Universities

In early July, the University of Phoenix announced that the school system would implement stricter admissions requirements to prevent unprepared students from enrolling.

Whether the University of Phoenix brand and that of other for profits will recover, along with enrollment, remains an open question. Their original niche that targeted the working learner is now being filled by many non-profit, traditional universities, which have expanded their online degree programs. For the meantime, when it comes to for-profit degree programs, the best advice for prospective students is buyer beware.



Program Spotlight: Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program

One of the nation’s leading biomedical graduate programs, the Vanderbilt Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical and Biological Sciences is designed to build successful, well-rounded leaders in science.

Under an umbrella of 11 different graduate programs, ranging from cancer biology to pharmacology, students are able to lay a foundation of more generalized coursework before selecting a specialized field of study.

Learn more about Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program from Assistant Director Beth Bowman.

GSM: Briefly describe your role with Vanderbilt and some of your main objectives.

Beth: I am an Assistant Professor of Medical Education at Vanderbilt University and I have two major roles: Assistant Director of Biomedical Graduate Studies and co-Director of the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy for undergraduate research. While my main job is to inform students about our graduate programs and recruit them to Vanderbilt, my passion is for helping educate students about the graduate school experience and how to make themselves competitive applicants. I want to be a resource for students hoping to make the transition from undergraduate to graduate education so that the important decisions they make during this time are well-informed and sophisticated.

GSM: What tools does the biomedical sciences program currently utilize to recruit students?

Beth: Most of our current recruiting is done through online, regional, and national graduate school fairs and our own online interest form. I contact students individually who either attend our booth at graduate school fairs or who complete this form to discuss their interests and how our program fits with their specific needs. My approach is much more focused on personalized attention than mass communication, a reflection of our programs’ attention to individual student success.

GSM: How useful is Gradschoolmatch to you and your program as a recruiting tool?

Beth: While I have only been using Gradschoolmatch for a short period of time, I have definitely found it to be useful for recruiting. I love the chance to learn a little bit about students, determine what they are seeking in a graduate program, and establish a connection before I tell them about our program. It seems like a much more personal approach that fits in well with my recruiting strategy.

GSM: Your program is considered an umbrella program. Can you describe how umbrella programs work, and how they differ from more traditional interdepartmental programs?

Beth: Traditional interdepartmental programs are typically smaller programs centered on a specific subject (i.e. Cancer Biology, Microbiology and Immunology, or Cell Biology) within the biological or biomedical sciences. While the faculty part of this type of program may come from different academic departments, they are still focused on the specific subject within that program. In contrast to this, umbrella programs commonly have a broader span, typically across the majority of biological or biomedical sciences departments at a specific institution.

For example, the IGP umbrella program spans 11 of our biomedical science departments. After gaining foundational training their first year in an umbrella setting, students will join a specific department or program when they choose their thesis mentor. Thus, unlike interdepartmental programs where students choose their subject up front, the goal of umbrella programs is to provide more choice and strong foundational training before specialization.

The 11 programs within the IGP
The 11 programs within the IGP umbrella program

The IGP program was founded for two specific reasons: 1) There really are no longer clear distinctions between biomedical science research fields; thus we believe all first year graduate students should get a broad foundation across these disciplines and strong training in critical thinking skills. While we group first year students together, we still value the importance of small group discussions and we balance larger didactic lectures with small, discussion-based coursework. 2) Many incoming students either don’t know specifically what they want to study or switch their interest during their first year of graduate work. We find that even students with a very specific initial interest will join a lab studying a different subject. Thus, rather than limiting students to faculty within one subject, we give students the flexibility to explore any laboratory, no matter what specific field the lab studies.

GSM: Why would a student benefit from choosing an umbrella program, and what type of student would be most successful?

Beth: Any student interested in biomedical research, whether they are undecided in their research interest or if they have a very specific thesis project in mind, would benefit from an umbrella program. One of the biggest goals is to expose burgeoning scientific leaders to the broad array of biomedical research disciplines. Because there are no longer clear boundaries between scientific disciplines, a scientist’s research can take him or her along many paths, often outside of the specific field in which he or she started. To successfully “follow the science”, a broad foundation in biomedical science is essential. Thus, the biggest benefit of training in an umbrella program is the strong science tool kit developed, filled with skills and knowledge that scientists can access when needed.

GSM: What are some of the unique strengths of your program at Vanderbilt?

Beth: Vanderbilt has two unique strengths that truly set it apart from other biomedical graduate programs: Support for graduate students in the lab and out of the lab. Vanderbilt is well known as a friendly, collaborative research institute that fosters relationships between investigators across disciplines. Additionally, to support research on campus, we have a large number of excellent core facilities and shared resources. These provide cutting edge scientific services, enabling access to high-end equipment, advanced techniques and specialized expertise for all Vanderbilt investigators. A full listing of these resources can be found here.

Support outside the lab includes an excellent Office of Career Development that is available to graduate students. Our goal is for our graduate students to be happy and productive in their research pursuits in the laboratory while also becoming educated and experienced in the many different career paths of biomedical PhD scientists. This Office of Career Development provides career and professional development services and enrichment activities for School of Medicine PhD students, including assistance on choosing a mentor, resume writing, grant writing, job search strategies, and experiences for different career paths.

Additionally, through a grant from the NIH, we also have a program called ASPIRE (Augmenting Scholar Preparation and Integration with Research-Related Endeavors) that helps students transition efficiently to research and research-related careers in both academic and nonacademic venues.

biomedical graduate program vanderbilt aspire
The Vanderbilt ASPIRE program was established in 2013 to empower and prepare biomedical sciences PhD students and postdoctoral scholars to make well-informed career decisions.

GSM: What are some typical career paths for students following graduation?

Beth: Immediately after graduate training, most of our students (about ¾) continue their research careers in postdoctoral fellowships either in nationally recognized industry or academia institutions. The remainder immediately pursue careers as Faculty members at Research I institutions or 4-year colleges, Research scientists in industry or the government, Scientific writers, or Patent lawyers.

GSM: What is some advice you would give to prospective students for your program?

Beth: My biggest piece of advice for students is to get research experience at a top-tier research institution as early as possible. This is for several reasons. 1) Getting accepted into an excellent graduate program is continually getting more competitive and requires extensive research experience. Even a stellar academic record, including a 4.0 and perfect GRE scores, will not get you into a great biomedical graduate program if you do not have legitimate research experience. 2) Experience at a research-intensive institution will give you an immersive view of what graduate school will be like. Working at a research-intensive institute is very different from the research done at a primarily undergraduate institute not only because of the environment, but also because of the resources available to students. Overall, it is more representative of research done during graduate school. Additionally, working at one of these institutes will also give you a chance to speak with people who either have gone through graduate school or who are currently going through graduate school. 3) Most importantly, this experience will show you if you actually like doing the type of work you will be doing as a graduate student.

Graduate school is not simply a continuation of undergraduate-style education. You will be learning how to think critically, analyze problems, persevere through failure, interpret data, design experiments, evaluate the literature, overcome roadblocks, etc. In other words, you are not simply “learning more about science”…you are becoming a forward scientific thinker. This type of critical thinking and boundary pushing is not meant for everyone, and that’s okay! Make sure it is right for you. Spending enough time on an intensive project will give you a clear idea if graduate school is your path.

GSM: What does the path to application look like for prospective students? Where is the best place for them to get more information?

Beth: Our application opens August 1st and closes January 15th each year. We also have a priority deadline of December 1st, which is when we start focusing on reviewing applications. We require a Statement of Purpose, unofficial transcript, general GRE scores, a record of research history, and 3 letters of recommendation. We review every application personally, looking at the applicant holistically and individually.

For the IGP program, the most important part of the application is the previous research experience and success in this experience. Thus, we spend the most time focused on the parts of the application that relate to this, especially including the student’s record of research experience and letters of recommendation. We do not have specific academic score cut offs, though we would like to see that students would be successful in our graduate-level coursework. In general, we recommend that students get as much research experience as possible, preferably at a research-intensive institution, before applying to graduate school. For more information, students can either email me directly or they can navigate to our website.

For more information on Vanderbilt’s Biomedical Graduate Program, visit their program profile on Gradschoolmatch.


How To Recruit The Best Grad School Candidates On A Budget

Does your program want to recruit the best grad school students, but lacks the financial resources to do so? Specialized graduate programs often face the challenge of limited marketing budgets, a need to recruit nationally or even worldwide, and don’t have the infrastructure in place to reach the right audience of prospective students.

MBA programs typically do an excellent job of fostering relationships with students and bringing in a wide pool of applicants. However, MBA programs often have access to funds that smaller, more niche masters programs don’t have available.

How can resource-strapped masters programs recruit the best grad school students on a budget?

Focus on Precision, Not Scale

Many graduate programs seek to bring in hundreds of applicants, despite a small number of actual spots available. By attracting a large number of applicants and only selecting a handful, the program appears to be more selective, and therefore more appealing to students looking for a top program.

While scale hypothetically allows programs to choose from the best and brightest, focusing on scale is not the most cost-effective way to recruit the best students.

Programs with big budgets spend significant time and money on tools like Google AdWords to cast a wide net and bring awareness to as many students as possible. This practice is costly, and doesn’t necessarily yield the most qualified, interested applicants.

By honing focus on the right students, programs will spend less time and resources sifting through hundreds of applicants, and will have a smaller, more targeted pool of pre-qualified candidates from which to choose.

Boost Alumni Involvement

Alumni are not only a great source from which to gain donations, but they’re an excellent resource to assist in your program’s recruiting efforts, in which success is relationship driven. Use your program alumni to your advantage; have your alumni use their personal and professional networks to recruit on your program’s behalf.

Seek donations from program alumni specifically for recruiting and scholarships to help welcome the next generations of students to their alma mater. It’s proven that satisfied former students give back to their universities and programs; Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business received donations from an impressive 67% of their MBA alumni in 2010, showing an extremely high level of alumni participation and engagement.

Not just business schools receive a large volume of alumni donations; of U.S News’ 2014 report of colleges and universities with the highest alumni donations, 8 of the top 10 were small liberal arts schools.

Alumni can also bring in job opportunities for current program students. With more and more prospective graduate students concerned about post-grad job placement, encouraging an active alumni community on your campus can help self-promote your program’s offerings.

Utilize Resources That Provide the Most Value for the Money

While it’s almost impossible to effectively recruit prospective students for free, there are a variety of ways to meet and engage students that provides the most bang for your buck.

Many small graduate programs participate in a variety of interactive conferences and workshops to find applicants and engage with a niche group of prospective students. While travel costs can often add up, these conferences provide an efficient way to meet a variety of interested potential applicants at one time.

While we admit that it’s a shameless plug, is a great way to vet students to determine those to seek out and begin a conversation with.

Our platform appeals to those programs that seek a large volume of applicants; with over 227,000 students registered on Gradschoolmatch, it’s easy to find the students that your program is looking for.

However, if your program is looking for very specific students that fit a set of criteria, it’s easy to search for students by GPA, graduate year, and field of academic interest, thus eliminating students who don’t fit the bill.

Our platform is also very affordable; compared with Google AdWords, where the cost of keywords for programs in some fields can reach upwards of $30 per click, Gradschoolmatch offers highly targeted matching with students that you personally pre-qualify. Gradschoolmatch allows a higher level of control in the recruiting process, leading to better applicants and greater return-on-investment for your program.

Like this article? Sign up for Gradschoolmatch blog updates, and visit us at to start recruiting the best and brightest future graduate students.


Graduate School Timeline Infographic

If your program is marketing on campuses, you’re missing most of the people who are thinking about graduate school.  Since two-thirds of Gradschoolmatch’s users graduated prior to 2014, it is a better resource than you might imagine. They’re thinking about coming back to school….and you can find and influence them on Gradschoolmatch.

Check out our graduate school timeline infographic to better understand how, when, and why students are going to graduate school.

Grad School (2)


Like this article? Sign up for Gradschoolmatch blog updates, and visit us at to start recruiting the best and brightest future graduate students.