Graduate school enrollment softens and schools fret about less tuition – USA TODAY

ATLANTA — Two construction cranes hover over a giant worksite just outside the Scheller College of Business at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
What they’re building is both a show of optimism in and a way to attract more students to something universities badly need but are beginning to worry about: graduate education.
The $200 million project will house Scheller’s graduate and executive business programs in one tower, connected to Georgia Tech’s School of Industrial and Systems Engineering in another. Linking graduate business programs with other disciplines has proven to increase demand; Scheller has already added a science, technology, engineering and math designation to its master’s program in business administration, with a resulting bump in applications, the school says.
At a university focused on technology, doing this “seemed like a natural fit, and we were seeing some of our competitors doing it,” said Peter Severa, Scheller’s assistant dean for MBA student engagement, in a conference room overlooking the construction site.
It’s also a kind of enticement that’s become essential in response to signs that, after years of increase, the graduate enrollment on which universities heavily rely for revenue may be softening, as prospective students question the cost of grad school and as shorter, cheaper and more flexible alternatives pop up.
“What we’re seeing now is a combination of a leveling off and a big question mark as to where this long-term trend will go,” said Brian McKenzie, director of research at the Council of Graduate Schools.
Unlike undergraduate enrollment, which has been on a steady decline, graduate enrollment has gone up over the last decade. Undergraduate numbers fell by 15% between 2010 and 2021, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, while graduate enrollment grew by 9%. That was fueled in part by a change in 2007 that let graduate students borrow up to the full cost of their educations, unlike undergraduates, who can borrow only a limited amount.
This growth made graduate programs a lucrative source of revenue for universities. To cash in, universities and colleges vastly expanded their graduate offerings.
It seemed a good bet. Not even the pandemic slowed the increase in graduate enrollment. It reached its highest level ever in 2021, as workers who had been laid off or furloughed opted to get graduate degrees. Then, in 2022, it fell.
There was a slight rebound in the fall of 2023, but that was driven largely by international students enrolling. Among domestic students, graduate enrollment declined.
Beginning next year, a decline in the number of 18-year-old Americans is projected to take another big toll on undergraduate enrollment. Basic math suggests that it will eventually hit graduate programs, too.
There are other challenges. All those graduate programs that universities rushed to add meant that, even when graduate enrollment was going up, the number of students per program – and, therefore, the revenue from these programs  – was going down.
Meanwhile, a strong labor market has many people staying in their jobs instead of furthering their educations.
“The choice became, ‘Do I go to graduate school or do I look at some of these very good opportunities?’ Many of them chose to go with the money,” said Julia Kent, vice president for best practices and strategic initiatives at the Council of Graduate Schools.
There has also been a proliferation of alternatives to traditional graduate degrees, such as lower-priced, shorter-term certificate programs and other nondegree offerings. 
“We live in a fast-food society,” said Lily Bi, president and CEO of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, or AACSB. “People want something easy, something fast.”
And flexible. Twenty-seven percent of master’s programs and 66% of MBAs are now offered online, giving students more choice of when and where to take them. That’s up from 12% and 36%, respectively, in 2012.
Graduate students represent only a little more than a fifth of all students but account for nearly half of federal student borrowing, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The average graduate student federal loan holder owes $70,000, an analysis found, and one in five has borrowed more than $100,000.
The increase in borrowing for graduate study has sparked a warning from the education department, which notes that growing numbers of borrowers are finishing their graduate educations with very high levels of debt. And while people with graduate degrees generally earn more than people without them, that premium has flattened out, “suggesting a potential decline in the net return,” the department’s chief economist observed.
Mindful of all this, the Council of Graduate Schools has created a task force to study the cost of graduate education and has recommended expanding eligibility for Pell Grants to graduate students and lowering the graduate student loan interest rate from the current 8.05%, Kent said.
Graduate programs are increasingly forced to dependent on one market that continues to grow: international graduate students. Their numbers rose 21% in 2022 and 22% in 2023, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
In almost every graduate field that reported increased enrollment, it was due to a big jump in the number of international students, even as the numbers of U.S. citizen and permanent resident students fell.
In graduate business schools, the number of students who are U.S. residents or permanent residents dropped 7%, while the number from other countries went up 19% in the fall, AACSB figures show.
That growing dependence on international students could be risky; during the pandemic, they all but disappeared. Geopolitical tensions also could have an impact; though more international students continue to come to the United States from China than from any other country, the number of Chinese students fell slightly last year, according to the Institute of International Education. Still, McKenzie, of the Council of Graduate Schools, said the number of students from India increased 35% during the same period.   
Universities are aggressively recruiting international students. Georgia Tech’s STEM designation for its MBA program was devised in part as a way to help reverse a steady decline in the number of full-time MBA students.
That’s because a STEM designation allows international students to stay in the United States and work in their fields of study, without an employer sponsor, for three years after earning a degree, compared to the usual limit of one year.
“If a large portion of our applicants are international, it’s important to be attractive to them,” said Emily Sharkey, Scheller’s executive director of MBA admissions and recruiting.
Among other universities whose business schools have added STEM designations: Arizona State, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern and Rice.
Incorporating technology into business education also appeals to undergraduates who might eventually pursue graduate degrees.
Even as an undergraduate at Scheller, “I’ve learned coding and stuff I probably wouldn’t have learned at other business schools,” said Elizabeth Curvin, who just finished her sophomore year there.
But she’s not ready to commit to investing in an MBA. “I’d probably go out to the workforce and see if it was something that I wanted,” Curvin said.
Junior Aubrey Charron said she also wants to try out her planned career in hospital administration first, “just to make sure I’ve really found what I want to do.”
Individual students’ careers and universities’ bottom lines aren’t the only concern. The country is facing growing shortages of workers for jobs that require graduate degrees, the Council of Graduate Schools says.
“It is concerning that domestic enrollment is slightly down, because it will be critical to have more Americans participating in graduate education,” said Kent, at the Council of Graduate Schools.
This story about graduate enrollment was produced byThe Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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