The recent economic troubles have sparked four trends that are worsening immediate financial hurdles for almost anyone considering graduate school, causing applications to many graduate programs to fall.
[Browse our guide to Paying for Graduate School.]
But the downturn in demand, signs of economic rebound, and increasing inventiveness by college administrators are sparking six other developments that provide long-term hope for more affordable graduate courses, especially for students willing to consider new kinds of colleges and degrees.
[Read about how to use competition among graduate schools to get funding.]
First, the bad graduate school news:
1. Rising tuition: Graduate tuition, especially for professional schools, has been skyrocketing, as colleges scramble to raise revenue. The cost of a year's tuition and fees at pharmacy graduate programs, for example, rose by more than 50 percent—from $13,600 to $20,800—from 2002 through 2008, the last year for which national averages are available. And announcements from across the country show that grad tuition has shot up since then. The University of California system recently warned it will raise professional school tuition by as much as 31 percent in 2011. And despite a downturn in the legal profession, some top-tier programs are still raising tuition faster than inflation. Stanford Law School plans to raise tuition by 5.75 percent this fall, for example.
2. Reduced employer support: The Great Recession caused many employers to slash their tuition reimbursement perks for graduate study. The percentage of employers who don't offer any reimbursement at all for graduate study jumped to 44 percent last year, up from 35 percent in 2007, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. And those employers who still offer some reimbursement benefits have become stingier and tougher, some graduate students report.
[Get tips on how to persuade your boss to pay for your graduate tuition.]
3. Fewer fellowships: The number of Ph.D. fellowships and assistantships is being cut at many colleges. Generous schools such as Columbia University, Emory University and Yale University have already trimmed their budgets by cutting back on the number of funded graduate students they're accepting. And many public universities, such as those in Arizona, Nevada, and Louisiana, are bracing for budget cuts that could further slash the number of funded grad seats. Meanwhile, debates over the federal budget have left funding for federal graduate grants in limbo.
[Get tips on how to get graduate schools to increase your financial aid.]
4. Fewer good jobs: Budget-cutting colleges are phasing out the cushy lifetime professorship jobs to which many graduate students aspire, making borrowing to pursue a doctorate (especially in the humanities) a lousy investment, some embittered Ph.D.s say. Monica Harris, a psychology professor at the University of Kentucky, warns applicants against borrowing to fund a Ph.D.: "If you're not good enough" to get into a good graduate school and get fully funded, "you almost certainly won't be good enough to earn a competitive academic/research job when you're done," she says. Even if humanities grad students get funded, they should prepare for "the very real prospect of working five to 12 years at pitifully low stipends," she adds.
As a result of rising tuition and shrinking aid, the price grad students actually pay—after subtracting out grants—has been skyrocketing, especially at professional schools. A year at a typical law school—including living costs but subtracting scholarships and grants— now exceeds $41,000. It was less than $30,000 in 2004.
[Read about new help for paying off federal student loans.]
The rising net price of graduate school appears to be pricing some students out of programs. Even business schools, once considered immune to economic downturns, have reported declines in applications for the priciest kinds of degrees, such as full-time, two-year M.B.A.s. And a recent survey by Moody's found that only 58 percent of universities reported increased graduate enrollment in the fall of 2010. In 2009, 91 percent had increased their graduate enrollments.
The good news for students, however, is that the drop in outside funding and leveling of enrollments are starting to spark some universities and employers to find new ways to make graduate study more affordable. Here are six positive trends in 2011 and 2012:
1. Alumni discounts: A handful of universities have started offering discounts on graduate tuition to their undergraduate alumni. Wayne State University, for example, offers a discount of up to 50 percent on graduate tuition for many programs for unemployed alumni and their spouses. Worcester Polytechnic Institute offers up to 50 percent off tuition at some grad programs for recent alumni.
2. Employee discounts: Some employers are negotiating discounts on graduate school tuition. Students should be aware, however, that in many cases the discounts only apply to online for-profit colleges, some of which have faced recent allegations about poor quality. Home improvement store Lowe's, for example, says it has negotiated discounts with Capella University, Kaplan University and Strayer University.
3. Some targeted increases in government aid: While most governmental agencies are cutting back, a few are aiming to increase spending on graduate students. University of Georgia president Michael Adams in January proposed spending an extra $1 million to recruit and fund 40 extra graduate students, for example.
4. Faster or more practical graduate programs: Colleges are cutting back on traditional full-time Ph.D. programs but are launching more practical and professional master's programs. And many are trying to recruit students to the new programs by making them faster and more convenient.
For instance, Sacred Heart University, in Fairfield, Conn., is launching a new master's in communication in the fall of 2011 that can be completed in just 12 months. James Castonguay, director of graduate programs in SHU's Department of Communications, said his staff checked out other nearby colleges' masters' costs and requirements before designing a program in which each course only lasts eight weeks. That allows students to start whenever is convenient for them, instead of waiting until the fall. The total tuition cost of $26,730 may sound high, Castoguay concedes, but that's a little below the annual tuition charged by some similarly ranked private colleges. And by shortening the program to one year, students save an entire year's tuition. "That is a deal," he says.
[Learn the 11 steps to relief from federal student loans.]
5. Economic rebound: Incipient economic growth and rebounding investment markets are raising the prospect of easier graduate funding. Donations to colleges rose slightly in 2010, allowing some, such as Columbia, to raise graduate student stipends. A few major employers, including Ford and General Motors, have reinstated tuition reimbursement programs in recent months. Ph.D.s in recently moribund humanities fields say they are starting to see an uptick in hiring. Though it is nowhere near the level of a decade ago, "academic employment has rebounded" from 2009's dismal lows, says Jim Grossman, director of the American Historical Association.
6. Continuing demand for undergraduate degrees: Undergraduate enrollment has grown strongly throughout the recession. Though colleges are experimenting with teaching software for undergraduates, there's increasing demand for writing-intensive courses, which require human graders, signaling long-term demand for college instructors with advanced degrees.
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