Fewer people are going to graduate school at the University of Minnesota — a slide that echoes national trends but worries some local scholars.
Enrollment in master’s and Ph.D. programs on the Twin Cities campus of the state’s major research university has dropped more than 9 percent over the past five years, university numbers show. Business has seen the biggest loss, while physical sciences are faring just fine.
The sagging enrollment can be traced to the economic downturn, which changed not only how much money people can put toward advanced degrees but also their views on debt and job prospects, said Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, acting dean of graduate education. “A lot of this is reflective of national trends.”
Across the country, total graduate enrollment fell 2.3 percent in 2012 from the fall before, according to a September report by the Council of Graduate Schools. That’s despite a slight increase in students starting grad school.
But student leaders here stress that there’s plenty the University of Minnesota can control — starting with tamping down tuition and offering better teaching and research gigs.
“The university needs to … grow salaries for graduate assistants so that departments can compete with other public universities for the best graduate students,” said Andrew McNally, president of the Council of Graduate Students. “Right now, not all departments can do so.”
The downturn in enrollment adds urgency to tough discussions already underway about the future of the U’s graduate programs. No less than three teams are debating questions including whether the university’s huge swath of graduate offerings ought to be trimmed. One committee’s work has focused on, in part, enrollment targets.
Enrollment in graduate programs — which do not include professional students who go on to become doctors or lawyers, for example — fell overall but grew dramatically in some areas. The Center for Allied Health Programs, for example, saw enrollment rise 151.3 percent since 2009, according to the U’s Office of Institutional Research. Meanwhile, the Carlson School of Management lost almost a quarter of its graduate head count.
Here and nationally, more people are applying for graduate school. Applications to the U’s graduate programs grew 17 percent over five years, driven by a surge in interest from international students.
The fact that enrollment has not surged along with applications “may be a sign that many qualified students who wish to attend graduate school are faced with obstacles to enrolling,” the Council of Graduate Schools report continues. Chief among them: money.
How students pay for and how universities finance graduate education changes from one department to the next. Some programs expect students to pay for their tuition out of pocket. Others offer research positions, funded through federal grants. Some promise multiyear teaching positions.
“There are a variety of reasons why there has just been less money for graduate students,” including less federal funding for research, said Scott Lanyon, a professor in the College of Biological Sciences and head of the U’s Special Committee on Graduate Education. “That’s a big part of the decline.”
Last year, graduate student leaders raised concerns before the U’s Board of Regents about the increasingly limited availability of graduate assistant positions, which can be a key way students pay for their education. U leaders found they were right.
“There is evidence that the level of graduate student funding support has experienced some erosion,” according to a report presented to the Board of Regents in September.
Spending on stipends for graduate assistants dropped 1.9 percent from 2009 to 2013, the report said, while spending on fellows and trainees fell 2.5 percent.
“Given that the stipend level has increased for the majority of graduate programs,” the report said, “the decline in expenditures likely reflects a reduction in the number of graduate assistant positions available.”
That’s one reason why some departments are offering spots to the same or a smaller number of students, despite receiving more applications.
“Departments are working hard to manage quality in relationship to finances,” Gregory Kohlstedt said. “Quality drives this as much as anything.”
So does the job market. Would-be academics heard about the recession’s “huge negative impact” on the number of academic jobs available for students earning master’s and doctoral degrees, said McNally, a Ph.D. student in American studies. They weighed their potential debt against the likelihood of getting a job.
Lanyon argues that society needs more Ph.D.-trained scholars — “people who understand research, who are intelligent consumers of scholarship” — in not just academia, but government, nongovernmental organizations and industry.
“We need to figure out” how to better finance and run graduate schools, Lanyon said, “or the country will suffer for us losing our stature globally in graduate and professional education.”