Fiscal crisis could prove boon to graduate applications

When the economy sours, students start thinking about grad school. At least that’s what early graduate application numbers at the University seem to indicate.

By Tyler Warner

When the economy sours, students start thinking about grad school. At least that’s what early graduate application numbers at the University seem to indicate.

Applications at the University’s Law School have increased 10 percent compared to this time last year, according to Ann Perry, associate dean of admissions for the Law School. She noted that economic downturns tend to spur increased application yields. The Law School saw a similar increase in applications in 2001, she said. During that same period, the economy shed three million jobs.

A popular explanation for the trend is that students attempt to dodge the job market by turning to graduate school instead.

Increased interest in graduate school has been noted outside the University as well, as more students take graduate school entry exams. The number of GMATs—business school entry exams—taken in the United States increased by about six percent compared to last year, according to Jennifer Kedrowski, the GMAT program manager for Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions. Outside of the U.S., the figure rose by 22 percent.

But like most of those interviewed, Kedrowski would not directly attribute testing numbers to an economic downturn.

“Traditionally, students, those in the workforce, and those who have recently lost their jobs turn to business school, law school and grad school, as safe refuges to ride out the economic storm,” she said. “Graduate-level programs saw this trend in the aftermath of September 11, and we are seeing another shift now.”

Kedrowski also noted that registration for free practice tests and seminars has achieved even higher levels of growth: attendance has more than doubled some months this year. The number of students registered for all tests has risen in the past few years, although Kedrowski noted that MCAT courses are generally less affected by economic instability because the preparation for medical school requires a number of years. Interest in the GMAT, however, has shown the largest increase over the past year.

According to Perry, the financial crisis will not necessarily reorient career goals. But it could encourage earlier applications from those who would have otherwise put off graduate school.

“Usually someone’s already been thinking about law school; now they just move it up a few years,” she said.

At the Divinity School, however, the trend seems less apparent. According to Teresa Hord Owens, the dean of students for the Divinity School, this year’s application numbers are on track to wind up at roughly the same level as prior years. To date, the Divinity School has received 300 applications out of a yearly average of 400.

In fact, Owens worries that the financial crisis could have a negative impact on graduate studies. As problems in the financial sector leave credit harder to come by, she worries that many students who want to attend graduate school may be unable to afford the rising costs of continuing education.

“If credit for student loans becomes tighter, it may have an adverse impact on students’ ability to finance their graduate education,” she said. “Ph.D. programs are now financed more generously in terms of student aid here at the Divinity School, but master’s level students will likely feel the pinch more immediately.”

Unlike many other University graduate programs, the Law School, which uses rolling admissions, has a better opportunity to gauge application numbers this early in the cycle. In the Physical Sciences Division, time will tell whether a similar increase will be seen.

“Conventional wisdom holds that applications to graduate schools increase when the economy stumbles,” said Richard Hefley, dean of students in Physical Sciences Division, in an e-mail interview. “It is still too early in the application season to draw any meaningful conclusions about the applicant pool for 2009–2010.”