- Master's degrees continue to grow in popularity and the programs offered are becoming more diverse, according to a recent research brief from the Urban Institute. The number of distinct master's fields that have granted at least 100 degrees a year has nearly doubled from 289 to 514 between 1995 and 2017.
- Students enrolled in master's programs have also become more diverse. From 1996 to 2016, the portion of Hispanic and black students in these programs has risen from 14% to 25%. Health programs saw a 10 percentage-point increase in black students between 2000 and 2016. During the same period, social and behavioral sciences as well as business and management both saw 6 percentage-point increases in Hispanic students for the period.
- Net tuition prices for master's programs have risen faster than they have for bachelor's programs. The net price of master's programs for full-time students has increased by 79% between 1996 and 2016, rising from an inflation-adjusted $8,700 a year for tuition and fees to $15,600.
Facing undergraduate enrollment declines and reduced state support, some U.S. colleges have been turning to master's programs as a way to fuel revenue growth. That's because upping the number of master's students may be easier than growing the undergraduate student body.
For one, the report notes, boosting the undergraduate population would likely require more student housing because more than half (58%) of first-year, first-time bachelor's students live on campus. That's not usually the case with graduate students, most of whom live off-campus and either attend classes online or commute to school.
And unlike undergraduates, many master's students don't have limits on how much federal aid they can borrow. That can make graduate programs more attractive to prospective students and the institutions that benefit from their tuition dollars.
Some colleges are doubling down on efforts to grow their graduate program footprint in order to balance their books, according to The Hechinger Report.
Simmons University (previously Simmons College), in Boston, took that route as a way to help stave off closure. After laying off around 90 employees, freezing salaries and borrowing $20 million from its endowment, the college partnered with the digital higher education provider 2U to offer its graduate courses online. The move proved to be a boon for the college, raking in $5.4 million that year and $56 million annually a few years later, according to The Hechinger Report.
Similar partnerships between colleges and online education providers are becoming more common. This year, at least six colleges – including the University of Pennsylvania, Arizona State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – announced they were partnering with Coursera to launch new degrees, most of which are master's programs.
Such online programs may offer slight cost-savings benefits to graduate students. Although net prices have risen for graduate programs overall, they have grown at a slower rate for online courses.
Yet with little standardized outcome data for graduate programs available, institutions don't have a strong incentive to keep a close eye on graduate students' loan burdens, "potentially leading to an increase in programs that leave students with debt that outweighs their increased earnings potential," writes the report's author, Kristin Blagg.
Over the past few decades, the average amount graduate students borrow has roughly doubled from an inflation-adjusted $11,900 a year in 1990 to $23,900 a year in 2014, according to the Brookings Institution. And although no official source tracks graduate borrower outcomes, Brookings notes, their default rates have been slowly creeping upward.
The Urban Institute report recommends policymakers push for better estimates of master's student outcomes, especially for newer programs. It also states that more research is needed to gauge how online graduate programs stack up against similar in-person offerings.