Grad school enrollment: mostly good news, but some bad news

Bryan Alexander
Oct 8 · 3 min read

How are graduate programs changing?

The Council of Graduate Schools just released a new report based on enrollment data for American universities from 2008–2018. The findings, while not shockingly surprising, are important for anyone looking at the future and present of academia. They bear out many trends from last year’s report.

The report (Hironao Okahana and Enyu Zhou, “Graduate Enrollment and Degrees: 2008 to 2018”) offers some good news. Applications to American graduate programs increased 2.2% over 2017, with private universities enjoying a 7% boost. Enrollment also rose, with first-time numbers up 2.1% and total enrollment growing 1.5%.

Master’s programs remain the most popular, by far: “the large majority (83.3%) of all first-time graduate students in Fall 2018 continue to enroll in programs leading to a master’s degree or a graduate certificate…”

Racial minority applications rose significantly:

Among first-time U.S. citizens and permanent resident graduate students in the Fall of 2018, about 24.1% were underrepresented minorities, including American Indian/Alaska Native (0.5%), Black/African American (11.8%), Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander (0.2%), and Latinx (11.6%)…

The positive trend for Latinx students has been consistent for the last three years.

Women continue to make progress in grad programs:

In Fall 2018, more than half of first-time graduate students both at the master’s degree and certificate level (59.7%) and at the doctoral level (54.4%) were women (Tables B.7). Women also earned the majority of graduate certificates (64.8%), master’s degrees (58.3%), and doctoral degrees (53.0%) awarded by U.S. institutions in 2017–18…

The report breaks out disciplinary differences. The humanities remained flat, unsurprisingly. “The fields of education (-1.6%) and arts and humanities (-1.7%) reported the largest declines in total enrollment over the ten-year period between 2008 and 2018…”

Math and computer science boomed.

the largest one-year gains in first-time enrollment by broad field of study were in mathematics and computer sciences (4.3%), health sciences (3.3%), and education (3.2%).

Engineering actually dropped, but the reason for that seems to be political (see below). Engineering remains America’s most popular graduate field, and STEM as a whole continues to dominate:

Some of the news is not that good.

Public universities did not see an application increase. Applications actually dropped 0.7%.

While women’s number rose overall, “men still constituted majorities of first-time graduate enrollment in business, engineering, mathematics and computer sciences, and physical and earth sciences…”

And international numbers continued to go down: “First-time graduate enrollment of international students decreased (-1.3%) between Fall 2017 and Fall 2018.” Hence one disciplinary surprise: “the decline in engineering enrollment is largely driven by a decrease in international students.”

It’s interesting to compare this report about graduate programs with undergrad enrollment. Disciplinary patterns are fairly similar, with STEM booming and the humanities not doing well. Women, now the majority of students, keep rising. There are more efforts to attract and support underrepresented minorities.

I do wonder about universities facing down undergrad enrollment declines. How many are thinking about bulking up their master’s programs? And how much further will international numbers fall?

Originally published at on October 8, 2019.