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Grad school: Refuge from stalled job market?

Admissions tests mostly rising, but one declines

By Barbara Ballinger
Chicago Tribune

September 21, 2003

When John Reeves started college at Washington University in St. Louis, the Elgin resident envisioned becoming a history professor. But, after learning how tough the job market is for doctorate degrees, the history major, who is entering his senior year, plans to apply to law school for fall 2004.

"I decided it's better if you have a law degree because there are more things you can do with it in a bad job market: be a law professor, go into public service or into private practice," said Reeves, 21.

Carrie Nissen, 26, who graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in 1999 and has worked at Chicago companies for four years, also plans to return to school at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management, but only part time.

"In this day and age you need a degree to advance. An MBA is almost necessary once you reach a certain management level, but the opportunity, cost to leave, and not knowing what I'd get in two years doesn't make sense," said Nissen, an associate in the direct marketing group at R.R. Donnelley & Sons.

"School days, school days" has become a familiar ring for all ages and many interests as the economy has stalled. The number of graduate admissions test-takers has overall reflected an uptick in recent years, but now one test, which is the first to indicate change, is indicating a dip, according to officials.

The number of students taking the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) for graduate management and business schools is up overall from several years back but is beginning to show its first decline in recent years due to concerns such as Nissen's about giving up a good job for an unknown one down the road.

The number of graduate management or business school test-takers of the GMAT went down 14 percent to 230,000 in 2003, according to Dave Wilson, CEO of the Graduate Management Admission Council in McLean, Va. Previously, the number of test-takers went up 5.5 percent to 249,632 in 2002 from 236,994 in 2001.

Other tests are still showing an increase.

Medical College Admission Tests (MCAT) rose by 5.6 percent between August 2001 and August 2002, from 54,350 to 57,573, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C. Final numbers are not yet available for 2003, although test registration was up 4 percent from the prior year.

Law School Admission Tests (LSAT) increased to 134,251 for the 2001-02 year from 109,030 the year before, a 23.1 percent increase. For the most recent 2002-03 year, based on a June to February test year, there were 148,014 tests administered or a 10.3 percent increase from the prior year.

Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) for master's and doctoral programs surged to 454,508 in 2001-02 from 381,178 in 2000-01, based on a July 1-June 30th test year, or a 19.24 percent increase, but dropped 6.7 percent to 423,929 for 2002-03.

Are more people seeking refuge in ivory towers until the economy rebounds?

Not necessarily, according to the experts. Instead, several trends have come into play that affect the number of test-takers, and experts are looking at these to determine the reasons behind the increases.

Looking at the trends

First, college students think they need graduate education to distinguish themselves, said Peter Syverson, vice president for research and information services at the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, D.C.

And they seem to think they need it from the get-go. More than three-quarters indicate as freshmen that they plan to get a graduate degree, said Debra Stewart, president of the council. "Some may not end up doing so, but they increasingly expect to need an advanced degree."

At the same time, students understand that a graduate degree won't automatically open doors in a down economy. Some business school graduates still may have a hard time getting a job with a master's degree, but it's "still not as hard as it would be for undergraduates without the degree," said Ken Bernhardt, professor and chairman of the marketing department at Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

Second, a demographics shift trend shows an increased number of candidates competing for jobs. The 25- to 29-year-old population is projected to increase by 15 percent between 2002 and 2012, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Third, many students think it's best to get an advanced degree when the economy sputters and jobs are less plentiful. This occurs most with management and business degree candidates who work before they go back to school due to admissions criteria. As a result of being in the workforce, they may witness economic fluctuations firsthand and see sales or profits decline or colleagues laid off, all spurring them to head back for additional training.

But as the economy remains stalled, some, like Nissen, begin to wonder whether it's the best time to go for the advanced degree and whether to do it full time or part time. That's now occurring, as the decline begins, experts say.

At the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business, applications for the class that entered last fall were up 70 percent from the prior year, but are down 20 percent this year, said Don Martin, associate dean for enrollment.

Besides the issue of timing and the job market, another factor may be affecting business applications among international students, Martin said. Stricter visa guidelines were imposed last fall, and international students comprise a large number of applicant pools in the United States and one-third of his school's, he said.

Yet, at the same time, Wilson -- and others -- view the decline as more of a correction in the market and a return to more normal numbers.

`Years of growth'

"You had an incredible surge for four to five years with numbers being the highest ever at the end of 2002. We've had decline but are coming off years of growth," he said.

Colleague Daphne Atkinson, vice president of industry relations, said that some increase also was artificial because some potential applicants were in a "just-in-case mode. They took tests to make themselves more bankable. But, if they had a job as the economy worsened, they became risk-averse and stayed," she said.

Erik Olson, director of guidebook publications at Princeton Review in New York, which offers test preparation, agreed and says some students view "the degree as offering a less strong return on investment and worry about the opportunity cost" when tuition exceeds $30,000 a year.

Business school officials say that may be shortsighted. Rosemaria Martinelli, director of MBA admissions and financial aid at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, said the degree remains a strong investment, but it may take longer to be realized in a down economy.

She also says the dip is beneficial.

"Instead of students looking for a quick fix, they will make more careful choices about whether they want the degree," she said.

Not surprisingly, business schools see strong demand for part-time and executive programs where students can keep their day jobs.

While changes may show up first in GMAT numbers, LSATs usually follow. The numbers of students who will attend the country's full-time schools this fall represent an 11.2 percent increase over the prior year, according to the Law School Admission Council in Philadelphia, which administers the LSAT.

"We saw a big increase in the number of applicants, driven in part by the poor state of the economy. Many people decided to sit it out and go straight to law school," said Ed Haggerty with the council.

But others see the field as a way to gain stability.

Elizabeth Zeiders, 29, who works for a foundation in Tulsa, Okla., headed to law school at the University of Tulsa's College of Law last month. "I've hit a dead end," she said.

One classmate is her husband, Thomas, 27, who faced a similar situation in his oil and gas job. "With our roots here, we're confident we'll find good jobs when we graduate, even though it was harder to get in because others felt the same way," she said.

Applications up

Northwestern University's School of Law had 5,200 applications for this fall's class versus 4,400 a year ago, an 18 percent jump, said Donald Rebstock, associate dean of enrollment and career strategy.

Georgetown University's Law Center had 12,200 applications in 2003, a 6 percent increase over the 11,512 applications in 2002 and a 73 percent rise in the past five years, said Andy Cornblatt, dean of admissions.

But as with MBAs, the number who took the latest admissions test in June was 1.2 percent fewer than the same period a year ago. "It's too early to say numbers will head down since students can still take it for fall 2004 admittance," Haggerty said.

The number of GRE test-takers for master's and doctoral programs also has grown, in part due to the economy, said Justin Serrano, executive director for Kaplan Test Prep in New York, a test preparation company. "We've seen growth at a faster rate in the number of people studying for GREs in 2000, 2001 and 2002," he said.

For example, the doctoral history program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign had 160 apply in January versus 135 three years ago.

Some taking these tests are pursuing a second career, especially in education. Rebecca Sherrick, president of Aurora University in Aurora, part of Associated Colleges of Illinois, attributes interest to publicity about teacher shortages. "They identify teaching as a way to move into a stable environment," she said.

The number of medical school test-takers fluctuates less according to the economy than other disciplines, in part because of prerequisites.

But other factors caused numbers to decline from 1995 to 2001. Dr. Raymond Curry, executive associate dean for education at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine, cites concerns about professional autonomy and higher liability insurance costs.

Dr. Jordan J. Cohen, president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, said physicians' failure to command the same respect is another factor.

Recent signs of an uptick reflect more non-traditional students' applying -- those in the work force who want to switch to medicine, said Delores Brown, Feinberg's associate dean for student admissions.

"Our applicant pool of non-traditional students has gone up," she said. "Some may come because they're dissatisfied with the economy."

Can graduate school officials differentiate between students who may view grad school as a place to sit out an economic downturn versus those passionate about a field?

Curry said they can. "We make decisions based on more than grades and test scores," he said. "We want to see well-established evidence of a student's commitment to being in a service profession."

Some say it doesn't matter.

"It's hard to know if they really want to be lawyers, but if you're going to invest three years to get a law degree, you probably have significant interest," Haggerty said. "Otherwise, it's an awfully long time to do something on a whim."

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Requirements for advanced degrees

Admissions criteria vary among different types of graduate disciplines and sometimes among schools in one field. Here are general guidelines of what to expect if you want a doctor's degree, lawyer's degree, MBA, master's degree or doctorate, according to experts:

Medical school: College degree, MCAT test, resume, portfolio of college science classes including two to three years of chemistry, a year of physics, foundation in biology, recommendations, transcript, application essay, work experience and personal interview, said Dr. Raymond Curry, executive associate dean for education at Northwestern's Feinberg School of Medicine. "We want evidence that a student is interested in and committed to the service profession and has done some volunteer work that is closely associated with clinical endeavors," he said. Mean MCAT scores for students who applied to medical school in 2002, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in Washington, D.C., were 8.7 in verbal skills (of 13), 9.1 in physical sciences (of 15), 9.3 in biological sciences (of 15) and a median `P' score in writing skills (based on a J-T grading scale with `T' being "terrific" or the best). Mean scores for students who actually matriculated in 2002 were a 9.5 verbal, 10 for physical sciences, 10.2 for biological sciences and a `P' median for the writing skills. Scores aren't yet available for this year's applicants or attending students, according to the AAMC.

Law school: College degree, LSAT test, resume, one letter of recommendation from an academic faculty member, personal statement, transcript, work experience--but that's not a requirement, said Andy Cornblatt, admissions director at Georgetown Law Center at Georgetown University. "An interview is not part of the process. We view the personal statement as a chance for candidates to present themselves," he said. The school's median LSAT score has gone up and was 167 (of 180) for students entering fall 2001, 168 for those entering fall 2002 and probably will be 169 for those this fall, Cornblatt said.

Business school: College degree, GMAT test or equivalent, resume, transcript, four essays and one optional essay, work history since college with four to five years preferable, two letters of recommendation, and preferably an admissions interview, said Don Martin, associate dean of enrollment at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. "The average GMAT scores have steadily risen in the past three to five years for the applicant pool. We expect to have one of the highest averages this year, at about 690" of 800, he said.

Master's or doctoral degree: It's hard to generalize about requirements because graduate programs are so diverse, but all require a bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited institution, said Peter Syverson, vice president for research and information services at the Council of Graduate Schools in Washington, D.C. In many cases, the GRE is required. At Elmhurst College, the GRE is required for two of its seven grad programs--the master of education in early childhood, special education and the master of arts in industrial/organizational psychology. For all its programs, the college asks students to build a "paper profile" with the application, college transcript, personal essay, three letters of recommendation and a resume, said Elizabeth Kuebler, director of graduate admissions. The master of arts in English studies also requires writing samples.