Student debt and undergraduate enrollment may still be growing, but grad schools are starting to feel the pinch. The New York Times reports that graduate program enrollment has fallen for the second year in a row:
The declines followed surges in enrollment in 2008 and 2009 as many unemployed workers 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.
Humanities and arts programs have seen the largest declines, while STEM and health fields are actually growing, almost certainly due to the abundance of job opportunities in these fields.
This shift may be bad for graduate school professors and administrators, but it is good for the rest of us. Many graduate degrees are simply irrelevant to a rapidly-changing job market, yet their cost continues to rise even as their usefulness declines.
As long as students continue to enroll (and government financial aid continues to pour in), schools see little need for reform. A little market pressure could go a long way toward driving more innovation in higher education.
In the end, the US needs more educational opportunity, not less. For that to happen, we have to find cheaper ways to do the job. This is one of those crises that creates opportunity — if we are smart enough and flexible enough to reform and restructure the system.