Throughout the many reports of declining enrollment during the pandemic, graduate education has been an unexpected bright spot.
But federal data show that much of the growth in graduate enrollments came from unlikely sources. It wasn’t from the doctoral institutions often considered to be the bedrock of graduate studies. Instead, graduate enrollment increased at many less-selective baccalaureate colleges and master’s institutions, and at colleges whose graduate programs were predominantly online before the pandemic.
A Chronicle analysis of preliminary enrollment data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that graduate enrollment at baccalaureate colleges nationwide was up nearly 10 percent in fall 2020, from a year earlier. Master’s colleges saw an increase of 7.6 percent in their graduate enrollments. And at colleges where at least 75 percent of graduate students were enrolled exclusively online, graduate enrollment was up 9.6 percent.
Meanwhile graduate attendance at doctoral institutions fell 0.8 percent in fall 2020.
The top-line numbers hide a fair amount of variation within categories. For instance, graduate enrollment at private baccalaureate colleges was up 4.7 percent in fall 2020 from a year earlier. Bigger gains could be seen at the institution level: Moravian University, a private liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania, saw its graduate attendance increase 16.1 percent, to 608 students.
According to a letter from its provost in early November, Moravian — which officially shed its status as a college and became a university in July — has been “building out” its graduate programs to offset the losses it sustains from enrolling undergraduate students whose tuition is discounted. Moravian has more than 45 graduate and certificate programs in areas that include business, education, and nursing.
The sharpest increases in graduate attendance for the fall of 2020 at master’s colleges were at two private institutions that in 2019 had fewer than 500 graduate students each: St. Joseph’s College, in New York, and Concordia University, in Nebraska. Enrollment at St. Joseph’s was up 395 percent to 1,109 students and Concordia increased 123 percent to 1,065 students.
Other key findings are below: