Graduate student enrollment drops nationwide

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November 1, 2011

12:34 AM

National graduate school enrollment decreased last year for the first time since 2003, while at the same time the graduate programs at the College of William and Mary showed overall gains in enrollment.

The Council of Graduate Schools released its annual report in September which showed that although applications to graduate programs increased by more than 8 percent, actual enrollment decreased 1.1 percent from 2009 to 2010. The figures in the Arts and Sciences departments at the College during the same period were mixed, as enrollment declined in the programs of four departments and increased in the other six, with total graduate enrollment increasing from 509 to 511 students.

“I would say we’re not being adversely affected; we’re well positioned to be able to respond and weather this downturn in the economy. You have probably seen we have a select group of graduate programs, so we don’t try to cover every discipline,” Laurie Sanderson, dean of graduate studies and research for arts and sciences at the College, said. “We’re not an unmanageable, huge entity with tens of thousands of graduate students; we actually have a good handle on each student, so each student in our graduate programs is known specifically by name and interests and career goals.”

For some undergraduates considering advanced degrees, the benefits of additional education or a desire to wait out the ongoing recession outweigh the perceived costs in time and tuition dollars. For others, the choice may not be as simple.

“I would actually encourage a student who’s weighing the possibility of applying to graduate school…to look at the graduate programs that intrigue you and seem to fit with [your] career goals,” Sanderson said. “Choose some to apply to now and do the preparation, put the effort and passion into the application, and take a look at what comes back, and if that is not as appealing as some other career opportunities such as working as a research assistant or studying abroad, then there are options to weigh.”

Most current graduate students entered their programs during the ongoing recession, and as a result have become much more attuned to the economic viability of their degrees than students in previous years.

“I think maybe I probably would’ve benefited from taking a year off, but I think it would’ve made my first year more enjoyable. I think when I started I was really burned out and that was a hard adjustment, but it’s a lot better now,” Morgan Niccoli, a second-year graduate student in the biology department’s master’s program, said. “I think I have an advantage because I am learning different statistical tools and GIS tools … so I feel like in that sense I’m creating this kind of toolbox to be able to sell myself to the job market.”

According to the 2010 report issued by the Committee on Graduate Studies at the College, one of the most pressing concerns has been the failure of graduate financial aid to keep pace with those of other research institutions, leading to a decline in competitive edge for the College in attracting the best and the brightest students. In addition to graduate stipends lacking increases to accommodate the rising cost of living, the College still does not offer health insurance subsidies to students, as opposed to 85 percent of comparable universities that do.

“I don’t think I would’ve been able to go to graduate school unless I got a teaching assistantship,” Niccoli said. “At William and Mary, and I’m sure other places, you’ll get accepted into the program, and only a select few will get teaching assistantships or research assistantships, so if I [hadn’t] gotten one I wouldn’t have gone to grad school.”

Even with the support provided by graduate programs, potential students are still precluded from pursuing graduate school in the near future by a variety of factors. For Stephanie Gamache ’12, who works multiple jobs on campus in addition to her studies, the financial and time constraints of graduate programs weighed heavily on her decision.

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