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Graduate Student Enrollments Continue to Decline

Graduate student enrollments are down for the fourth year in a row, according to a Data Brief written in mid December and recently released by the National Science Foundation (NSF). This trend falls into line with last year's recommendation by the National Research Council that graduate programs in the biological science should limit their growth.

The numbers in the Data Brief come from the NSF's 1997 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering. The survey, which collected data from 11,600 departments at 601 colleges and universities in the United States, shows that most disciplines including the biological sciences are continuing the trend of the last 3 years with a fourth-year drop in enrollment. Disciplines such as mathematics (7%) and civil engineering (8%) experienced the sharpest drop in 1997 enrollments.

It's difficult to pinpoint the reason for the drop in enrollments, says Peter D. Syverson of the Council of Graduate Schools. "Nobody really knows for sure," he says, "because nobody asks the people that don't show up [to graduate school]."

One explanation for the trend, says Syverson, may be the "hot job market for bachelor's recipients." According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, salary offers made to new college graduates in 1997-98 increased significantly, with some fields such as civil engineering experiencing increases of 6.3% over the previous year.

Another explanation, says Syverson, is the overall bad news about the Ph.D. labor market. Joan Burrelli of NSF's Science Resource Studies Division agrees. "It's the past fears of no jobs, everything is dropping except for electrical engineering and computer science," both of which are high-growth areas.