Introduction to graduate schools in America

Contents

    American universities have a well-deserved global reputation for their excellent graduate education programs. In fact, when it comes to graduate education, American higher education remains the world’s undisputed leader for the number of high-quality graduate programs its colleges and universities offer across a broad array of disciplines.

    What is grad school?

    Sometimes also referred to as post-baccalaureate education, graduate programs include three basic types of degrees:

    • Masters’ programs,
    • Doctoral programs, including the PhD. and professional doctorates, and
    • Terminal professional degrees in fields such as medicine, law, and dentistry.

    As of 2019, about 3.1 million students were enrolled in graduate degree programs in the United States, and unlike undergraduate education, which has seen a steady decline in total enrollments over the past decade, total post-baccalaureate enrollment has increased by 8% (from 2.8 million to 3.1 million students) between 2009 and 2019. Graduate education is the one area of higher education that continued to see enrollment growth even during the pandemic.

    Why go to grad school?

    Students pursue graduate degrees for three basic reasons. First, in an increasing number of fields, a post-baccalaureate degree is required if one wants to be eligible for a career in those areas. Practicing as a lawyer requires a law degree. If you want to be a licensed social worker or psychologist, an advanced degree is required. And for those individuals who want to be a college faculty member, a PhD is the necessary credential in most disciplines, particularly if securing a tenured position is your aspiration.

    [Read: The value of a master’s degree]

    Whether the increasing number of jobs that requires a graduate degree is an example of “degree creep” – the gradual and unnecessary inflation of entry level credentials – or reflects the increased knowledge base that needs to be mastered in order to be a competent practitioner is a matter of much discussion and controversy.

    Overall, the evidence reviewed by the Council of Graduate Schools, points to a future where employer demand for graduate degrees will continue to grow. Recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics project that jobs requiring at least a master’s degree will increase 16.7% between 2016 and 2026, much greater than the 7.4% demand increase expected across all occupations.
    The second motive for earning a graduate degree is that it may boost an individual’s prospects for job promotion, salary increases and market competitiveness. The MBA is a prime example of a degree that’s often viewed as a ticket to advancement and better pay in a business or other organization. And master’s degrees in education are frequently required for teachers who want to move beyond their initial certification and be able to climb the teacher career ladder.

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    The third reason some individuals want to earn a graduate degree is probably the most fundamental of all. They simply want to learn more about a topic that excites them. While there also may be practical benefits that come with a graduate degree, the main impetus in these cases is intellectual curiosity and the personal satisfaction that comes from becoming an expert in a particular area.
    Over the next few weeks, we will feature a series of articles about graduate education, highlighting several major issues that currently are being debated. As an introduction, here are some of the basic facts about the scope of graduate education in America.

    Graduate Student Demographics

    Female students make up about 60% of total graduate enrollment, and the rate of growth in recent year for female graduate students (11%) has almost tripled the rate of increase for male students (4%).

    Of the 3.1 million graduate students enrolled in fall 2019, approximately 1.6 million were White, 367,100 were Black, 307,400 were Hispanic, 224,700 were Asian, 86,000 were of two or more races, 13,400 were American Indian/Alaska Native, and 6,000 were Pacific Islander.

    Between 2009 and 2019, American Indian/Alaska Native enrollment decreased by 27%, and white enrollment decreased by 9%. Hispanic enrollment increased by 68%, and Black enrollment was up 9% in this time period.

    In fall 2019, degree-granting postsecondary institutions enrolled 425,900 nonresident alien postbaccalaureate students, a 39% increase from slightly more than 300,000 international students in 2009.

    The rising popularity of online graduate programs

    Distance education is a very popular modality for graduate education, appealing to the many students who are employed or have family responsibilities that make on-campus attendance a challenge. In 2019, about 1.3 million students, or 42% of all graduate students, enrolled in at least one distance education course. One million students, roughly 33% of total post-baccalaureate enrollment, took distance education courses exclusively.

    Graduate Program Degrees

    In 2020, the most recent year for which complete data are available, 843,449 master’s degrees were awarded. In that same year, 190,178 doctoral degrees (including PhD’s EdD’s, professional doctorates and first professional degrees) were granted.
    The five most popular master’s-level field, in order, were:

    • Business
    • Education
    • Health Profession
    • Computer and Information Sciences
    • Public Administration and Social Services.

    At the doctoral level, the five most popular programs, in order, were:

    • Health professions
    • Law and legal studies
    • Education
    • Engineering
    • Biological and biomedical sciences.

    [Read: Professional doctorate programs]

    Is graduate school worth it?

    According to a recent report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), adults with a bachelor’s degree earn an average of $2.8 million during their careers, $1.2 million more than the median for workers with a high school diploma.

    And with every additional level of education they complete, workers tend to earn more than those with less education.

    Here are the median lifetime earnings of full-time workers by level of education, according to the Georgetown study:

    • less than high school – $1.2 million
    • high school diploma – $1.6 million
    • some college, but no degree – $1.9 million, equal to about $47,500 annually
    • associate’s degree – $2 million, or about $50,000 per year
    • bachelor’s degree – $2.8 million, the equivalent of $70,000 annually
    • master’s degree – $3.2 million, or $80,000 annually
    • doctoral degree – $4 million, equal to $100,000 per year
    • professional degree – $4.7 million, or an average of $117,500 annually.

    However, these findings need to be put in context. They don’t tell the whole story. Career earnings depend on many factors in addition to level of education—including age, field of study, occupation, gender, race and ethnicity, and location.

    For example, the CEW report, The College Payoff: More Education Doesn’t Always Mean More Earnings, found that:

    • 16% of high school graduates, 23% of workers with some college education but no degree, and 28% of associate’s degree holders earn more than half of workers with a bachelor’s degree and,
    • 36% of workers with a bachelor’s degree earn more than half of workers with a master’s degree, 23% earn more than half of workers with a doctoral degree, and 20% earn more than half of workers with a professional degree.

    Field of study can matter a great deal to career earnings for graduates with either undergraduate or graduate degrees. For example, students with graduate degrees in health care, engineering and the sciences typically see a much higher income premium from their advanced education than do students in fine arts and some social sciences.

    In fact, in some cases a master’s degree may not yield any economic payoff whatsoever for students. A recent Wall Street Journal article exposed the problem of master’s programs at elite universities that do not provide their graduates with enough career earnings to be able to pay off they federal student loans. It cited as a leading example the fact that recent graduates of the film program at Columbia University who took out federal student loans had a median debt of $181,000. But two years after earning their master’s degrees, half of the borrowers were making less than $30,000 a year.

    That may be an extreme example, but it is far from the only one, and it highlights why it is so important that students who are considering attending graduate school explore their options very carefully, with respect to the costs, requirements, time commitments, and job prospects associated with post-baccalaureate degrees.

    A useful guide to several of these questions is available in the Council of Graduate School’s Making a Grad School Plan: From Application to Orientation. In addition, the other articles in our graduate education series will discuss several of the major issues and questions that students who are interested in graduate education need to consider.

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