USA,Dec 9(NY Time)-In bad times, the conventional wisdom has it, people flock to graduate school. But there is at least one sign that in this recession, that may not happen.
After years of steady growth, the number of students taking the Graduate Record Examination, which is required for most graduate programs, is on course to decline this year.
At the start of the year, the Educational Testing Service, which administers the $140 exam, projected that 675,000 students would take it by year’s end. Now the service estimates that the total will be only about 621,000.
A record 633,000 students took the G.R.E. last year, up from 577,000 in 2006 and 539,000 in 2005.
David G. Payne, the service’s associate vice president for college and graduate programs, said it was too soon to predict what the decline would mean for next fall’s enrollment.
“On a percentage basis, it’s a very small decrease,” Mr. Payne said. “I think there are several things going on. The perception that there’s a lack of available credit may be contributing. It may be a question of timing, with people delaying their tests. There’s been such financial disruption that there’s a kind of freezing effect.”
Mr. Payne said he thought that test volume might rise after the first of the year. In September, his organization undertook a campaign to encourage students to take the exam while they were still in college, even if they had no immediate plans for graduate school, since college students tend to score higher than those who take the test after they have been in the work force for a few years.
“We had a record number of registrations in September,” Mr. Payne said. “That doesn’t mean they took the test, because they can register up to a year ahead.”
Declines are projected this year among American and international students alike. The number of American test-takers is expected to drop to 449,000, from 456,000 last year, and the number of test-takers abroad is expected to drop to 172,000, from 177,000.
China and India generally send the most graduate students to the United States, but while the number of Chinese students taking the exam is up again this year, the number of Indians doing so is off sharply. According to the Educational Testing Service’s current projections, about 52,000 Chinese students will have taken the G.R.E. by the end of the year, compared with 41,000 last year. For Indian students, this year’s figure is 55,000, down from 74,000 last year.
Most of the nation’s 2.2 million graduate students are earning master’s degrees in fields like accounting, education, public health, business and public administration.
“If historic patterns hold, enrollments should rise in a recession, but they have not yet,” said Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. “We’re trying to figure out why the pattern is changing, and the loan situation can’t be ignored.
“If you take a field like education, nearly 60 percent of students report self-funding as their primary source of support, and what self-funding means is a mixture of personal savings and loans.”
And while the expectation might typically be that an economy in recession will pull out of it within two years — about the time needed to get a master’s degree — the severity of the current financial situation may be making people wary about leaving a job, even a bad job, to go to graduate school, Dr. Stewart said.
In doctoral programs that support students with fellowships or teaching assistantships, she said, the recession and looming budget cuts will also take a toll.
“Clearly the decline in available teaching assistantships is going to translate into fewer students,” Dr. Stewart said. “I think we’ll see the beginning of the problem in January, and then see it in spades next year.”