As education leaders debate the cost and accessibility of a bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota, the number of students entering graduate school there has been quietly dropping.
The state’s research powerhouse has seen overall enrollment by slide by 9 percent over the past five years, eroded by a poor economy and unstable government financing.
It’s part of a nationwide decline that some education officials fear could shrink America’s pool of talent.
And it has helped prompt the U to look more closely at what graduate programs it offers and how it can make them more affordable.
“We’re not panicked,” said Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, acting vice provost and dean for graduate education. “We’re paying attention.”
A main factor in the slump is an 11 percent decrease in the number of American students pursuing master’s and professional programs. Those appear to have taken the biggest hit, Kohlstedt said, because they’re most closely tied to the ups and downs of the economy and job market.
According to university data, the U’s education programs have lost overall more than 13 percent of their students systemwide in the past five years. Arts and humanities have taken a bigger hit – more than 17 percent. Social and behavioral sciences are down 6.6 percent.
The program taking perhaps the biggest beating is business, which has lost almost a quarter of its students systemwide. U officials say almost all of those lost at the Twin Cities campus are part-time students.
Other colleges on the Twin Cities campus have seen noticeable declines: the College of Biological Sciences (-22 percent), Design (-9.4 percent), and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs (-16 percent).
What’s happening to the U is occurring in similar fashion at other universities across the county — especially in the fields of science and technology — and has the Council of Graduate Schools worried.
“There are immediate and consequential risks if the pipeline of graduate-degree holders falters in America,” said council President Debra Stewart. “Declining enrollment numbers puts the country’s ability to compete globally at risk, and puts individuals at risk for being unable, potentially, to have fulfilling and financially successful careers.”
Graduate students — especially graduate assistants — are also key to the academic health of research universities, said U professor Scott Lanyon, head of a recently convened special committee on graduate education.
“They affect the quality of our undergraduate education,” he said. “They affect the quality and quantity of our research faculty. So they’re really kind of central to the whole operation.”
Conventional wisdom states that unemployed workers and recent college graduates seek refuge in graduate programs during bad economic times.
And American students haven’t lost interest in graduate education. Overall, grad-school applications both nationally and at the U are up over the past five years.
But a large number of those applicants, education officials say, can’t afford to enroll.
Council President Stewart said that’s because the recession has compounded existing financial problems:
Student debt levels are high. Nearly three quarters of master’s students have racked up an average debt of more than $41,000 over both undergraduate and graduate school, Stewart said. About two thirds of Ph.D. students have an average debt level of $60,000.
Government funding for things such as graduate assistantships has been scaled back over the past few years, which has reduced universities’ ability to lure students with financial incentives.
And employers in the business and government sectors are scaling back help. Whereas many used to contribute toward employees’ graduate education, Stewart said, “during the recession, that really ground to a halt in many states.”
At the U, a recent survey indicated that about one in five postgraduate respondents turned down an offer of admission for financial reasons – the most common reason given.
The financial crunch has prompted Emma Herzog, a 20-year old U of M junior from Woodbury, to consider dropping her psychology studies for a major she says won’t require grad school to make her marketable.
“I just don’t know if I can swing it” with $50,000 already piled on in undergrad debt, she said.
The squeeze has hit the U administration as well. The money that departments use to lure graduate students with paid work – such as a research assistant in a lab or a teaching assistant in a beginning-level course – is stagnant or dropping in some fields, Kohlstedt said.
Faculty “don’t bring [grad students] in unless they can fund them,” she said. “So if they don’t have the kind of funding for them, they’re not likely to admit them.”
With fewer American students in the grad school pipeline, colleges around the country have started filling the gap with students from other countries.
That’s because many foreigners are willing to settle for less compensation or shorter contracts than an American student typically would, Stewart said. (And many others pay full tuition.)
For them, she said, “coming to the United States is worth the risk no matter what – even if the financial offer might not be that stable.”
The change at the U has been noticeable. Thirteen percent more foreign students are pursuing master’s degrees than were five years ago. Their share of the student body has increased more modestly — just a few percentage points — to 15 percent.
The picture is more dramatic at some colleges within the U.
Foreign students have poured into the College of Design. A 209 percent increase over five years means foreigners now make up 22.7 percent of the student body, up from 6.7 percent.
“One word: China,” said Dean Tom Fisher. “We’re seeing extraordinary numbers of applications. And they’re good students. They are well educated. And they are also able to pay our tuition.”
Foreigners have also flocked to the law school (a five-year increase of 207 percent), Humphrey School (165 percent) and School of Dentistry (85 percent).
Kohlstedt said some programs may have recruited more foreigners to boost enrollment numbers. But others have simply been trying to become more globally diverse. Although the U tracks foreign enrollment, she said, it has left colleges to decide whether to increase it.
So is relying on foreign enrollment a viable long-term strategy?
Stewart says no; it’ll hurt both universities and the U.S.
“It’s not possible to assume that [the U.S.] will be forever the graduate school for the world,” she said, “because there is strong competition around the world.”
And though many foreign students have traditionally remained in the U.S. after earning their degrees, Stewart said, they’re beginning to find opportunities back home as their own economies improve.
That could hurt U.S. competitiveness, she said, because the country is losing the very brainpower it has cultivated.
Kohlstedt said investment in graduation is a “serious concern,” but sounded less concerned than Stewart about the immediate dip in American graduate enrollment. She says much of the drop is due to the volatility of the job market and government funding — neither of which may end up being long-run problems. With applications still on the rise, “there’s no reason to really worry.”
Still, top U officials have noticed the slumping numbers as they’ve called for a review of graduate education.
In talks with U alumni and the university community, President Eric Kaler has expressed concern over rising postgraduate tuition, the loss of graduate and professional students to other universities, and the quality of some graduate programs.
In his State of the University address earlier this year, he said the U needed to restructure its graduate offerings so it could spend its money on its most vital programs:
“At some point, I’m afraid, there will have to be a discussion — probably sooner than later — about which graduate programs are we going to invest in, and make sure that we are competitive for, and which of those are we going to have to walk away from.”
Contributing to that discussion is Professor Lanyon and his special committee, which will report to the provost in December.
Two of the four areas they’re looking at: how to better finance graduate education, and how to best manage enrollment.
It also will look into how to best go about closing programs when it’s necessary — but Lanyon said the committee will not be recommending any closures.
And Kohlstedt stressed:
“Enrollment alone never drives decisions about program closing. … Some relatively small programs are in fields that have relatively small numbers but are very important within a discipline or college and several of these have a strong national reputation.”