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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Author: TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch Founder