Enrollment in college is still climbing, but students are increasingly saying "no" to graduate school in the United States.
New enrollment in graduate schools fell last year for the second consecutive year, according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools.
The declines followed surges in enrollment in 2008 and 2009 as many students sought a haven during the recession. Financial considerations probably played a role in the shift. Students may be dissuaded from continuing their education in part because of the increasing debt burden from their undergraduate years.
Additionally, state budget cuts are forcing public institutions to reduce aid for graduate students, who in some disciplines have traditionally been paid to attend postgraduate programs.
The number of students enrolled in master's and doctoral programs (excluding law and certain other first professional degrees like M.D.'s) declined by 1.7 percent from the fall of 2010 to fall 2011.
Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents, matriculation fell by 2.3 percent. In contrast, temporary residents increased their enrollment by 7.8 percent.
Temporary residents made up 16.9 percent of all students in U.S. graduate schools, and that figure has been growing as foreign governments foot the bill for more of their citizens to obtain education in the United States, particularly in technical areas. Temporary residents represented 45.5 percent of all students enrolled in engineering graduate programs in the United States, and 42.4 percent of those in U.S. mathematics and computer science graduate programs.
The changes in 2011 varied by discipline, with education having the biggest drop-off in new graduate enrollment at 8.8 percent.
"The states are in financial stress," said Debra Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. "The school systems especially are in financial stress. Teachers are no longer being provided time off to get graduate degrees, and schools are no longer funding principals to go back and get principal certificates."
The next sharpest decline was in programs for arts and humanities, where new graduate enrollment fell by 5.4 percent, perhaps reflecting that career prospects for such graduates are increasingly limited as colleges lay off even tenured faculty members in these areas.
Health sciences, on the other hand, experienced a big increase in enrollment. The health care industry has been hiring consistently and robustly during the recession and the weak recovery.
The number of new graduate students studying health care rose by 6.4 percent, which was slightly slower growth than the average in the last decade. The average annual change in new graduate enrollment in health sciences from 2001 to 2011 was 9.8 percent.
Business enrollment showed more tepid growth, up 2.6 percent, and mathematics and computer sciences were up just 1.6 percent.
While overall enrollment for graduate school declined, the number of applications rose by 4.3 percent. It was the sixth consecutive increase in application volume.
The Council of Graduate Schools did not have data on how many schools the typical applicant applies to, so it was unclear if there were more people applying in 2011 than in the previous year. But more people took the Graduate Record Examinations, a test that many graduate schools require as part of student applications.