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Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.
Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Decline in Graduate School Enrollment

Why your application still needs to be ultra-competitive

This week, the Council of Graduate Schools released the 2011-2012 academic year’s application and enrollment statistics. From this report, we learn two important facts.

First, for the second consecutive year, enrollment in graduate programs across the U.S. declined. The number of students commencing graduate degrees fell 1.7% between Fall 2011 and Fall 2012. This decline was even sharper for U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Enrollment for this group fell 2.3% overall, while international students’ enrollment increased by 7.8%.

Second, while enrollment rates are on the decline, the number of applications submitted continues to rise. In fact, graduate schools received 4.3% more applications for entry into master’s and Ph.D. programs this year in comparison to last year. This is part of a larger trend that includes the economic decline 4 years ago, when grad school application rates increased sharply due to the limited availability of jobs for post-graduates.

Why do the statistics reflect lower enrollment among American residents and citizens? It is speculated that the sluggish economy, and the length of this recession, has caused students to think twice about taking on additional student loans for grad school and/or attending grad school while paying off undergraduate loans.

The lagging economy has also made it more difficult for universities, state schools in particular, to offer incentives for enrollment. As discussed in a previous post, many Ph.D. students and some Master’s level students are offered tuition remission, assistantships, and merit-based scholarships. In some cases, Ph.D. students also receive health insurance, conference travel funds, or other monies meant to relieve the financial burden of attending a long-term graduate program in exchange for increasing the University’s research output and teaching large numbers of undergraduate students. Funds for this type of aid to graduate students has become scarcer in the recession.

Moreover, program cuts and lack of funding can make it more difficult to offer enrollment period. It is expensive to educate graduate students – they take part in small, specialized classes, depend upon University-provided laboratory and office space, and require accoutrement for conducting research (e.g., computers, furniture, software, etc.). Thus, when students’ tuition does not cover these expenses, the number of slots graduate programs can offer to incoming students decreases. This, in part, contributes to declines in enrollment.

In the current situation, we have a “perfect storm” of factors that increases the competitiveness of graduate admissions. The number of applicants is increasing while the number of students who can enroll (either due to personal or institutional financial constrains or both) is decreasing. If trends continue in these directions, this fall’s candidates for next fall’s enrollment must have ultra-competitive application materials if they wish to be offered admission.

Importantly, we should note that the enrollment and applicant statistics discussed in this post are not necessarily particular to psychology or related fields. These are national, overall trends in masters and Ph.D. admissions that may be more or less applicable to psychology graduate programs.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit to learn more about working with Laura to improve your application. Follow her on Twitter for current grad school admissions news.

About the Author
Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.

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