Eduvation Blog

Pandemic Surprises for Grad Schools

Good morning, and happy humpday!

Today is the 807th anniversary of the Magna Carta, and a day to celebrate Lobsters, Nature Photography, and Smile Power. (You should be able to combine at least 2 of those, by taking some selfies today.) It’s also apparently Beer Day Britain, and the UN’s World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

I suspect several CdnPSEs will be focusing instead on the inaugural International Day of Women in Miningtoday (#IDWIM). The event livestream from the UK will start at 9:00am EDT (2pm BST).

Speaking of mining – back in January, you may recall, I dug into OUAC application data for 2 issues on Pandemic Upsides and Pandemic Downsides. That was focused on undergraduate interest in Ontario universities; today I want to focus on what the pandemic did for graduate studies, and not just in Ontario…

Graduate Studies

In late 2020, Canadian universities were reporting declines in grad school applications and enrolments, unlike much of the world – while things seem to have turned around for many programs by 2021…

Recessionary Booms

Recessionary times tend to boost enrolment in graduate programs, as students seek additional credentials to assist them in a tough employment market, and face lower opportunity costs if they cannot secure well-paid employment anyway. In the immediate wake of the 2008 Great Recession, for example, new enrolments in UK postgraduate programs surged 15%, largely at the master’s level. The COVID19 recession (which may still be just getting started) was more than an economic disruption, of course. The pivot online better suited most graduate students anyway, but closed borders had the potential to disrupt the international enrolments upon which many programs rely. (Foreign grad students in the US had already been declining for 3 straight years by 2019.) So, basically, expect complex and uneven effects…

“This is consistent with past recessionary environments… If graduate studies were a thought on the horizon, they gravitate toward doing them now. This is a good time to take some time out of their careers, invest in their education and come back when the economy is stronger.” Sangeet Chowfla, CEO, GMAC

Global COVID Boom

In Australia, applications to postgraduate programs rose by 10-20% at many universities in 2020. In the US, although undergrad enrolments were plummeting across the board, graduate enrolments rose by a cumulative 4.9% between Fall 2019 and 2021, and female students increased twice as much as males. (This may well reflect the fact that many grad programs were already being offered online, and for-profit schools grew grad enrolment 7.4%.) US high school grads in 2021 had doubled their interest in grad school since grade 11, according to one set of psychographic mindsets (from 11% as juniors to 19% as seniors – and 25% of those with higher incomes and PSE-educated parents).

“We saw right away this was different. We were inundated, and we’ve had a 30% increase in applications. When the economy goes down, people get worried about their jobs or they lose their jobs, and they think about going back to school.”Sheldon Grabke, registrar, OISE

Hottest Programs

US graduate enrolments were way up in IT (up 3% in 2020 and another 20% in 2021), Biology (up 5% and 10%), and Psychology (up 9% and 6%), reflecting some of the undergraduate trends we saw in January. MBA applications rose massively in 2020 and again in 2021 – for some institutions, by as much as 56% in a single year. Business master’s degrees remain the #1 grad program in the US, by a huge margin, but IT programs have gained ground since 2019. And program growth has been explosive where IT and Business intersect: Encoura notes an astounding 862% rise of MBA degree conferrals in “management sciences and quantitative methods” over the past decade.

Canadian Hesitancy?

In Canada, national statistics are not yet available for grad enrolments during the pandemic (the latest reports from CAGS appear to be from 2018). I was surprised when, in late 2020, Universities Canada told the Globe & Mail that graduate enrolments had dropped across the country for the first time in 6 years (from 177,000 to 176,000 full-time). Yet by 2021, universities were reporting growing grad applications, particularly in professional programs: applications to Law and Education rose 30%, while applications to master’s programs at Western rose 13%, and to doctoral programs 25%. uWaterloo reported master’s applications rose 27% in 2021 (particularly in engineering, math, and health fields), while Laurier’s grad applications had “more than doubled since 2016.” uAlberta reported a 20% surge in med school applications, while Ontario med schools were up 11%.

“The number of graduate students at Canadian universities fell for the first time in 6 years. Some had thought that a difficult job market would have encouraged more students to pursue graduate work, but that proved not to be the case.”Joe Friesen, Globe & Mail, Nov 2020

Whatever happened in 2020 must have been a blip in a long-running trend: in 1990, about 20% of BA graduates pursued further PSE, but 15 years later that had risen to 40% or more. The most rapid growth in Canadian university credentials since 1997 has been professional master’s degrees.

College Post-Grads

Then again, many of those university grads are pursuing post-degree or post-graduate certificates and diplomas at colleges and polytechnics, typically in fields that put a more career-relevant finish on a broader undergraduate experience, such as communications and PR. In Ontario, almost half of college students arrive on campus with some prior PSE experience, and of those who completed a prior credential, the majority held a university degree. (In 2018, Colleges Ontario reported that 29% of college students held a PSE credential – 16.5% of them a university degree – and 17% had some form of PSE experience.) Statistics Canada reported last spring that 14% of university grads go on to colleges to further their education, 25% within one year and two-thirds within 5. (This is particularly true in BC and Ontario). Often those students choose programs that build on their university education, and provide work experiences.

Career ROI

Studies of career ROI for PSE graduates have consistently found that those with multiple credentials fare better in the labour market, with higher employment rates and average salaries. There is no reason to believe that graduate school enrolments will lose momentum in the years ahead.

Anybody have some insight into what happened to grad enrolments in 2020? Drop me a lineIt appears to confound the decades-long trend prior, previous recessionary patterns, and the results in 2021 too!  Inquiring minds want to know…



OK, it’s certainly not a video targeting grad students, but on a related note…

Rex’s Big Research Adventure

uCalgary celebrated its #5 research ranking back in April with an unusual 4-min vid featuring Dino mascot Rex. His friend, VP Research William Ghali, equips Rex with a lab coat and sends him off on a day-long “research adventure.” He gets to chat with researchers, play with microscopes, and show us everything from ECE play labs and kinesiology tracks to wastewater sampling and rockin’ drum sets. Some of the dialogue is a bit stilted, and clearly scripted, and the narration seems to be in rhyming couplets. I’ve seen a lot of research videos over the years, but this one’s certainly unique!  YouTube


As always, thanks for reading!


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