Eduventures® New Insight Report Examines Fall 2020 Graduate Student Enrollment Trends

August 26, 2020

After Four Years of Decline, Followed by Modest Recovery, Report Shows Higher Education’s Graduate Portfolio Will Offer a Diverse Array of Programs in Terms of Length, Delivery Mode, and Price

Boston, MA – August 26, 2020 – ​ACT® | NRCCUA®, an educational data science and research organization, announced today the publication of the 2020 Eduventures Insights Report, Fall 2020 Graduate Student Enrollment Trends. Eduventures is the research division of NRCCUA. This report looks at domestic graduate enrollment patterns during the prior two recessions, the years in between, and over the long economic expansion that crested in early 2020 to provide an answer to the questions of whether the pandemic will boost graduate enrollment in line with prior recessions, or favor alternative programs.

Changes in Graduate School Enrollment Due to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is upending assumptions about the college experience and student demand. A down economy, something the virus has induced, normally drives enrollment up: individuals turn to higher education as a source of skill development in the face of unemployment and market uncertainty. This was the case during the prior two recessions at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

Graduate school enrollment is often driven by projected near-term return-on-investment: a better job and higher salary balanced against tuition and opportunity costs. If a bachelor’s degree is an immersive rite-of-passage, a master’s is an economic calculation. Pragmatism, openness to online, and strong self-motivation have been a boon for graduate schools but also threaten the status quo. The same logic that propelled master’s enrollment over the past two decades also spurred refinements to the formula. Shorter, cheaper online degree alternatives, many offered by leading universities, have flourished in recent years affording prospective graduate students greater choice.

Key Findings in this Report include the Following:

Domestic graduate enrollment spiked when the economy slipped. More precisely, enrollment tracks unemployment, which peaked just after the official end of the 2001 recession and late in the Great Recession of 2007-09. Negative enrollment growth between 2011 and 2015 was partly a function of a stronger economy but also an international graduate enrollment boom.

The number of people with a bachelor’s degree as their highest credential jumped 29% between 2010 and 2019, to more than 53 million. There have never been more prospective master’s degree students. The number of people with a master’s as their highest credential leapt even further—up 46%. This points to master’s demand rather than age cohort size as the most important enrollment driver. Educational attainment encourages further educational attainment. Someone with a bachelor’s degree is more likely to pursue a master’s than someone without a bachelor’s is to pursue a bachelor’s.

Graduate degrees have always competed against shorter, cheaper non-degree programs and learning on the job. Over the past decade, there has been a surge in non-degree offerings aimed at working professionals, notably various MOOC courses and programs, and similar offerings from individual higher education institutions and other organizations. Platforms such as Coursera and edX, and smaller providers such as Emeritus and Get Smarter, offer hundreds of online non-degree programs, typically from leading universities in high-demand fields. Programs take a month or two to complete and cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars.

“Eduventures predicts that both the degree and non-degree market will receive a boost in the coming academic year, driven by the pandemic-induced recession,” said Richard Garrett, Chief Research Officer and author of this report. “Online learning as a pandemic management tool is in tune with a master’s market that was already perhaps 40% online pre-crisis, allaying consumer concern and supporting enrollment. Compared to bachelor’s degrees, one-to-two year master’s programs are comparatively brief and affordable. Federal loans and institutional grants will cushion the blow.”

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