Field of Science

Getting in to Graduate School

It's standard dogma that when the economy is bad, people go back to school. Although it doesn't appear to be major news yet, a number of schools are reporting an increase in applications (here and here, but see also here).

Despite an increase in applications, it is very possible fewer people will actually go to graduate school. This recession may be unique.

There are two problems. First, masters, MD and JD programs are very expensive, and students typically require loans. I shouldn't have to elaborate on why this might present a difficulty for the prospective graduate student right now.

Second, universities are cutting the number of students they are admitting. I don't have systematic numbers, but I know that the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences is reducing the number of students admitted for PhD programs. If the richest university in the country is slashing enrollment, I don't think I'm going out on too far a limb in assuming others are as well. Large private universities are depending on their endowments (i.e., the stock market) to cover operating expenses, and students are expensive. State schools are dependent on government financing, which is also drying up.

It is obvious why PhD students at a school like Harvard are an expense: instead of paying tuition, they are paid a salary by the school. I don't know if the enrollment cut will hit the professional schools. It is well-known that undergraduate programs are typically run at a short-term loss (tuition does not cover expenses), with the school figuring they'll make up the difference in future alumni donations. I do not know, but suspect, that the same is true for the professional schools. That said, the only schools at Harvard right now that don't seem to have a hiring freeze are the Law and Medical schools.

As I said, this is not being widely reported, and I do not have numbers for the industry as a whole. Hopefully I am wrong, because such a trend would be bad. During a recession, more people suddenly have time for school. When the recovery comes, it meets a better-educated and more capable workforce, (presumably) further fueling the recovery. This time, the opposite may happen.

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