January 24, 2002
Many Ride Out the Recession in a Graduate School Harbor
By YILU ZHAO
HILADELPHIA, Jan. 17 — The sagging economy has created a bonanza of applicants for the nation's schools of business, law, journalism, education and many other graduate programs as laid-off workers and college seniors are deciding to wait out the recession by honing their skills.
College job placement offices may be in the doldrums, but admissions officers at many of the nation's professional schools and graduate programs say they are being inundated with applications.
The trend is striking. Admission officers at Emory University business school say applications were up 80 percent at the end of the first round in the admissions cycle in December in comparison to the same period last season; those at U.C.L.A. report a 90 percent increase and those at the University of Chicago report a 100 percent jump. Yale University Law School says applications are up 57 percent at this point in the season compared to the same point last year while Vanderbilt says its applications are up 47 percent. Engineering and education schools talk of similar surges. The bars for entrance have been raised.
Students at the University of Pennsylvania here give a simple explanation for the sudden enthusiasm for graduate education: the difficulty of finding jobs. Dave Feygenson, a senior, would have liked to work on Wall Street first and attend graduate school later if he could find a job. But after searching for a job in vain, he has applied to Ph.D. programs in finance at the nation's top schools.
"Why fight the economy?" he said. "Why not get it done now, since I cannot find a job anyway."
The only professional schools unaffected by this recession are schools of medicine. They are usually immune to economic cycles because the completion of a medical degree and the required residency can take eight or more years, a tremendous time investment in comparison to studying for other professions.
University officials say it is hardly surprising that during harsh economic times people turn to graduate and professional schools as havens from market storms where they can sharpen their skills and improve their credentials for better times to come. But this year's increase in the number of applicants is the largest in decades, said many longtime directors of admissions at professional and graduate schools.
The reaction to hard economic times is not automatically predictable. During the recession that occurred at the beginning of the 1990's, for instance, the numbers of applicants to both law and business schools nationwide slipped, while the application increases to the other professional and graduate schools were modest.
At the University of Pennsylvania, the job placement office was eerily quiet on a recent afternoon. No students popped in to inquire about jobs; no employers called to recruit. But one block away, at the admissions office of the university's Wharton Business School, virtually every employee of the admissions office — including the director — was busy opening application envelopes pouring in from all corners of the country.
Janice L. Austin, the assistant dean of admissions at the law school, where applications are up 33 percent, has hired four more people simply to open mails and bought a high-speed printer for letters to applicants. Rosemaria Martinelli, the director of admissions for Wharton's M.B.A. program, has led a team that is 15 people larger than last year's to read the applications day and night and even on weekends. Christopher E. Hopey, the vice dean of admissions at the school of education, where applications are up 70 percent, has just ordered 10,000 more letterhead stationery as the last batch, already an additional order, runs out.
"It's a logistic nightmare," said Dr. Hopey. "But it's a happy problem."
Although the dot-com bubble burst more than a year ago, its effect on professional and graduate school applications was not obvious until this round of applications. When many Internet startups first failed last January, it was already too late to meet the application deadlines for fall 2001 entrance, usually in February or March. But this year, the dot- com refugees, "disenchanted, disillusioned and disabled to pay rent," in the words of a University of Pennsylvania spokeswoman, have shown up as applicants here and elsewhere.
Eric Landry is one. After the Texas software company he worked for laid off 350 people last spring, including him, he decided to apply to the master's program in software engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.
"I have always wanted to go back to school and get the software training that I need to go to the next level," Mr. Landry said. "But it was never the right time."
There was simply too much money and excitement to give up. The largest cost of acquiring a degree, said Edward Snyder, the dean of the business school at the University of Chicago, was to forgo your current earnings, and weak economies lower that cost. Federal and private loans — averaging $80,000 for a law school student, $50,000 for a business student — make the graduate school years possible.
But while the recession lowers the ante for those prepared to start graduate education, it has tuned up the anxiety for those ready to finish. Even second-year M.B.A. students at Wharton, whose predecessors had often boasted of five, six job offers in previous years, are wringing their hands, wondering what next.
The hard times have reoriented the college seniors, too, who grew up during the longest boom in decades. During the 2001-2002 school year, employers are expected to hire 6 percent to 13 percent fewer college graduates than the last school year, according to a report released by Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. The job market for advanced degree holders will shrink by 20 percent, it also said.
While applications to graduate school are booming, it will be tougher for college seniors to get into the most selective programs because the number of available places has not grown substantially. The admissions director at Emory's business school, for instance, expects the average Graduate Management Admissions Test score of the new class to go to 670 from last year's 650.