The Surprising Effect of the Pandemic on Graduate Degree Enrollment

In Brief:

  • School enrollment numbers are up for graduate degrees at all types of higher education institutions

  • Three main graduate programs are trending: business, public health, and law

  • GradGuard asks about the reasons why students want to pursue a graduate degree

Blog Post

Over the last year, COVID-19 has impacted how we all live, learn, and work. This impact has even led some people to rethink their careers or education choices. What were once profitable positions may no longer be so, or with the extra time many have now, going back to school to get a postgrad degree or continue their education seems like a good idea.

An Increase in Graduate Degree Enrollment Numbers

According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz (RNL), the National Student Clearinghouse indicates strong growth of 4.3 percent in graduate enrollment with a decline of 4.5 percent at the undergraduate level for the spring 2021 term. When comparing graduate enrollment data by institution type, enrollment numbers vary from public, private nonprofit, and for-profit institutions:

  • Public higher ed institutions saw growth of 6.2 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021. This compares with 4 percent last fall and just 1.9 percent in the pre-pandemic data from spring 2020.
  • Private nonprofit institutions saw growth of 1.5 percent post spring 2020 term after reporting modest declines of -0.9 percent in the pre-spring 2020 term.
  • For-profit institutions saw considerable growth in spring 2020, although at lower rates than last fall.

A decrease in graduate enrollment numbers was seen by all types of institutions before the pandemic, which could be due to the projected decrease of college-age students along with the drop-off of international students. Even in the United Kingdom, a survey was conducted in 2020 of students and graduates, which over 36 percent said they planned to remain in higher education rather than starting their careers. As is reflective of past recessions, students can be driven back to the classroom in challenging times.

Programs Graduate Students Are Pursuing

With many graduate students returning to continue their education, several programs seem to be on trend. These include business, public health, and law. A business degree is one that seems to be immune to economic decline. The University of Pennsylvania reported having an increase of “double-digit” percentage of applications for their fall 2020 classes.

As for public health, this program sees increases whenever there is a catastrophic event. Just like the military saw enlistment numbers rise after 9/11, COVID-19 is doing the same for public health studies programs. NPR reports that Daemen College, based in Amherst, had 845 applications submitted for fields including biology and pre-med in the past year, compared to 536 the year before — a 36 percent increase.

When it comes to pursuing a law degree, right now seems to be the time. Admissions from the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) reveal that the number of applicants to U.S. law schools so far this year is around 35 percent higher than it was at this point last year. Meanwhile, college applications surged about 56 percent within that same time frame. This increase could be from many people having to slow down during the pandemic, giving them time to truly think about the next step in their careers, including dreams of becoming a lawyer.

When Graduate School is the Right Decision

When returning to higher ed for a graduate degree or to continue education, there are a few things students need to consider. GradGuard, a partner of Nelnet Campus Commerce, wants students to ask themselves the reasons why they want to get a postgraduate degree; what’s in it for them? Are they trying to get a better job or salary? Are they looking to expand their knowledge or move into a leadership position? If it’s YES to any of these questions, then they should follow their educational dreams. And since furthering their studies can be a huge investment of time and money, GradGuard can help your institution protect your students’ tuition fees by offering tuition insurance. This can give your students confidence that even in these uncertain times, their investment in their education is protected.


Watch our webinar Meet our Newest Partner: GradGuard to learn more.

Natalie Schwarz
Author: Natalie Schwarz

Natalie Schwarz is a former Content Marketing Writer for Nelnet Campus Commerce. She holds a Master of Arts degree in Creative Writing and has over a decade of professional writing experience.

View all posts by Natalie Schwarz