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Should Your Student Apply to Grad School During a Pandemic?

Suzanne Shaffer


With an unstable job market because of the pandemic, many students might consider going straight from college to graduate school.

However, it turns out that a pandemic may be a poor time to pursue an advanced degree.

Colleges have been faced with additional costs related to COVID-19: personal protective equipment, remote learning infrastructure, and COVID-19 tests. More critically, revenue is down because enrollment is down, and with fewer students attending class on campus and living in campus housing, that income stream has been reduced to a trickle. Services, staff and programs are being cut and graduate programs are one of the areas taking a big hit.

Colleges Evaluating Graduate Programs

Many universities have been forced to suspend or reduce Ph.D. program admissions for fall 2021 in order to conserve resources for students currently pursuing programs. Dozens of Ph.D. programs nationwide (even at elite research universities such as Harvard, Princeton and UC Berkeley) have announced that they will not be admitting any new students for the next academic year.

This temporary pause could have long-lasting effects, but according to Inside Higher Education, it’s very difficult to predict what graduate schools will do in the future. Princeton University’s sociology department, for instance, recently announced that it will honor admissions offers to students for the coming academic year but postpone further admissions until fall 2022.

The University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences will not take new school-funded doctoral students next fall. Rice University paused admissions to all five of the Ph.D. programs in its school of humanities. The University of Missouri is phasing out three doctoral programs — in sociology, personal financial planning and romance languages — and changing another.

The Chronicle of Higher Education elaborated:

More than 50 doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences won’t be admitting new students in the fall of 2021 — a response to the pandemic and ensuing economic turmoil. It’s a sort of financial triage to help the programs devote funding to their current students, many of whom will be delayed in completing their degrees because of the disruptions. Suspending admissions for a year, some administrators say, will also allow them to reimagine their doctoral curricula to account for the flagging Ph.D. job market.

Students Respond to Program Cuts

Students who were planning to enroll in graduate programs may have to re-evaluate their choices.

Suzanne T. Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, noted that interrupting the grad school pipeline could also have a lingering impact on the higher education work force. “A couple years off is not necessarily the end of the world and may even be a wise thing,” Ms. Ortega said. “But if our universities don’t remain in touch with those students, and connect with them, and encourage them to keep thinking about grad school, we could have our own lost generation of students who get busy with other things and then don’t fulfill their dreams.”

Carnegie Dartlet, a leader in higher education marketing, conducted a survey of more than 1000 prospective graduate students about how COVID-19 is affecting their plans. Some key points recovered from the survey include:

  1. Students are concerned about COVID-19 and its impact on their education. More than 60% said they'll consider delaying their graduate education. Combine this with low levels of confidence in being able to afford grad school right now, and there's a clear need for schools to consider the overall mindset of these students in practically every decision they're making.
  2. Prospective grad school applicants are asking for helpful communication. They want the ability to compare their potential grad school choices even though they can't visit campuses or have in-person interactions. Finding reliable ways to experience an institution virtually, as well as to connect with admissions, administration, current students and alumni, ranks high on their list of recommendations.
  3. Many students are sticking to previous plans — but with a watchful eye. When asked if their plans were changing in terms of geographic factors or attending school on campus versus online, most respondents said their plans hadn't changed from what they'd been before the COVID-19 outbreak.

See the complete results of the Carnegie Dartlet survey, including student responses >

A Few Grad Program Bright Spots

Not all graduate degree programs are suffering. The University of South Florida recently announced that its college of education would become a graduate school only, phasing out undergraduate education degrees completely.

Online graduate degree programs are thriving as well. Antioch University in Ohio just announced a nearly 20% reduction in tuition costs for its online Graduate Management Programs. Northwestern College in Iowa launched a new M.Ed. degree and graduate certificate in teaching history. In addition, University of New Hampshire has always provided a strong offering of online masters degrees.

Options Other than Grad School

In view of all these changes and uncertainty, prospective graduate students may want to take a look at other options:

  • Continue learning outside the traditional academic environment. There's a vast amount of educational content available to the public at no cost. Podcasts, books, videos and online training mirrors the material students would study in many graduate programs. Platforms like Udemy and Coursera can be used to upskill at a more affordable cost than attending a degree program. YouTube videos alone teach complicated tasks like coding, digital drawing, UX design, video editing and other technical skills. Essentially, if your student's goal is to acquire a new skill, and that skill can be taught, it's hard to compete with platforms where experts can crowdsource, teach and share content.
  • Evaluate the need for a graduate degree. There is much to be said for acquiring actual job experience as opposed to simply learning about it. Many employers complain that even the best performing graduates will need to learn the most relevant job skills after they start their jobs. Your student might not need that degree to excel in their desired career path.
  • Move forward and save graduate school for a later time. If your student is blessed to have a job opportunity during these uncertain times, their best bet might be to directly enter the workforce. Many companies support employees who seek to continue their education while working — some even foot the bill. Your student doesn't necessarily have to set aside their dream of an advanced degree but simply postpone it for a future date.

5 Steps to Take in the Meantime

If your student decides to postpone applying to graduate school but is still fairly confident that this is a move they want to make in the future, there are practical steps they can take now to continue forward momentum and be ready when the right moment arrives.

  1. Research programs in order to begin comparing course offerings, job prospects and price.
  2. Request letters of recommendation from professors while these mentoring relationships are still fresh.
  3. Network with these faculty mentors, and people who work in the field your student is targeting, in order to learn more about the best ways to aquire meaningful experience while preparing to be a strong candidate for a graduate program.
  4. Reach out to schools and programs of interest to set up informational interviews in order to establish contacts.
  5. Prepare for and take standardized tests required for admission (typically scores are good for up to five years).
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    Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been highlighted on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College and TeenLife online and she has written for Smart College Visit, College Focus, Noodle Education and Road2College. Her articles have also been featured in print in TeenLife, UniversityParent and CollegiateParent publications.

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