The National Bureau of Economic Research recently announced that the U.S. officially entered a recession in February 2020. Unprecedented levels of unemployment and declines in economic activity triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the economy’s 10-year period of expansion. With job prospects looking bleak for the near future, pursuing an advanced degree may become an attractive option for recent college graduates and those who find themselves unemployed.
While enrollment in graduate programs fluctuates from year to year, it tends to spike during economic downturns. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, dramatic increases in graduate enrollment occurred in 1980-1982 and 2001-2002, when the economy was in recession. More recently, enrollment in graduate and professional programs increased about 7.3% between 2008 and 2010, the height of the Great Recession. Over the past five years, however, graduate school enrollment plateaued and then decreased as the economy recovered. As of 2019, there were 3.05 million students enrolled in an advanced degree program.
For many people, attending a graduate program is a good option, and an advanced degree translates into better job prospects and higher earnings when the economy returns to normal. Individuals with a college education report lower-than-average unemployment rates and higher median wages compared to those without a degree. In general, the more advanced the degree, the greater the economic benefit. For example, the median weekly wages in 2019 for doctoral degree holders ($1,883) and professional degree holders ($1,861) were about twice as high as the median wage of $969 per week for all workers. In 2019, the unemployment rate for those with a master’s degree, professional degree, or doctorate was also at or below 2%, compared to the overall unemployment rate then of 3%.
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