Testing for grad schools is up in down economy

The economic slump may have at least one beneficiary: graduate schools.

During the economic boom of the 1990s, the number of graduate-school applications showed only slow growth. Now they are pouring in, and schools are getting more selective.

“It’s predictably countercyclical,” said Tom Rochon, executive director of the Graduate Record Exam at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton. The GRE is the general test used for admission to many graduate schools.

Educators say the rising interest is in part a result of a weakening confidence in the economy. With a gloomier job horizon, they say, workers are looking to augment their resumes.

Students are motivated by other factors as well, Rochon said. Educators say some of the increase in applications may be attributed to professions popularized by television shows and a rising interest in Mideast studies.

Professional schools offering programs in law, education and business are seeing the biggest surge in applications. Traditional humanities, science and social-science departments are also anticipating a flurry of applications.

The interest is revealed by the rising number of people taking admissions tests. The companies that administer the law school admissions test (the LSAT), the business school test (the GMAT), and the GRE have all seen higher numbers. Applications to medical school are not expected to rise, according to Association of American Medical Colleges.

In the fall, the number of GRE tests administered in the United States was 10 percent higher than the fall of 2000. The LSAT was up 22 percent and the GMAT nearly 19 percent. According to test administrators, the numbers typically fluctuate by about 5 percent in either direction for the GRE and about 10 percent for the GMAT and LSAT.

For 2000-01, the total numbers of people taking the tests were 455,000 for the GRE, 221,160 for the GMAT, and 109,030 for the LSAT.

The trend has followed the economy, said John Fernandes, president of the St. Louis-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, an accreditation group. “We can trace it back to early 2001. In 2000, we saw a decline; the economy was still doing well … then poof!”

Some prospective students say the sagging economy was the final push they needed to apply to graduate school.

When Christine DePetris, 41, was laid off last year by a real estate development firm in Maple Shade, Pa., she doubted she could find an equally lucrative job, she said.

So with her 18-year-old daughter applying to college, DePetris decided to apply to law school.

“My friends think I’m insane,” DePetris said, “but it gives me three more years to decide what I want to be when I grow up.”

Some educators question how closely the rise in applications can be tied to the economic downturn.

“I’m a skeptic. I think there are all sorts of other factors that play into it,” said Roger Dennis, provost of Rutgers University-Camden, where the number of graduate-school applications has declined slightly in recent years.

Dennis said the trend was often driven by factors that researchers do not understand.

Factors such as “Ally McBeal.”

Educators are convinced, at least anecdotally, that courtroom TV shows such as “Ally,” hospital shows and political shows play a sizable role in the popularity of career fields.

Even the fluctuations in salaries offered to first-year associates at Manhattan law firms can trigger a rush on the four-hour LSAT, educators say.

“Things are converging all at once,” said Janice Austin, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at the University of Pennsylvania’s law school. “There are probably a number of things going on.”

After three flat years, applications to the law school spiked by nearly 40 percent for the 2002-03 school year.

Deans are excited about the rise in applications, no matter the explanation.

“When the school gets more applications, we’re happier because we have a broader candidate pool from which to choose the best students,” said Patricia Rea, admissions coordinator at Penn’s Graduate Division of Arts and Science.

Penn expects to see a slight increase in applications to doctoral programs for its class entering next fall. Rea said it would be hard to attribute the growth to the economy alone.

Master’s degree programs may be more directly affected, said Joan McDonald, dean for enrollment at Drexel University and MCP Hahnemann University of the Health Sciences. Applications to Drexel, which also oversees MCP/Hahnemann, have risen by 28 percent for next fall’s class.

“If somebody has a bachelor’s degree in the humanities or science and is then the victim of a layoff,” McDonald said, “they may say, ‘This is as good a time as any to go back to school for a master’s degree.’ ”

Unfortunately, educators say, the burgeoning pool of applicants will not find a commensurate increase in the number of seats in graduate programs. And the more applications schools receive, the harder it will be to get in.


(c) 2002, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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