How Does the Covid-19 Pandemic Affect Graduate School?

covid-19 pandemic grad school

How has the current COVID-19 pandemic affected you? First and foremost, hopefully, your health is still good. If so, perhaps your job has suffered. Were you laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, making your position obsolete due to the economic downturn? Or, perhaps, your extra time at home has been a good time for reflection about future goals, both personally and professionally. Whatever your circumstances are, now is the best time to earn your master’s or doctoral degree, or at least think about it.

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Applications on the Rise

According to multiple news sources and school websites, the number of graduate school applications jumped considerably in 2020. The effects of the pandemic can be seen throughout the population as individuals rethink their work, job security, and time on their hands.

Bryan Moschel, the Director of Admissions and Operations, The Graduate School, at Montclair University, says there has been “a steady increase through this entire cycle, not only for applications but also the level of interest in graduate study.” Moschel calls the increases unprecedented.

A recent article in U.S. News and World Report attests to the same statistics. Citing the Law School Admission Council, the article states that U.S. law schools had an increase of 56% in their applications. Medical and business schools are also seeing a rise in applications.

The spike in graduate school applications may mean steeper competition. Many applicants are turning their applications in earlier in anticipation of the higher level of competition. However, colleges are adapting to the new situation as well. Many schools are turning to a more holistic and equitable method of screening applicants.

Graduate Schools are Adjusting to More Applicants

Because of the downturn in applicants from overseas, as well as the inability to implement the same standardized testing due to Covid-19, graduate schools are exploring various ways to evaluate prospective students.

According to InsideHigherEd, graduate admissions have re-evaluated their admissions process as a result of the pandemic. The article says that the GRE Program has “created a one-stop service site to assist graduate faculty involved with graduate admissions.” The site provides graduate faculty access to strategies that ensure admission practices are aligned with enrollment goals which include “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” These strategies employ various efforts such as interviewing prospective students and potentially weighing the pieces of the graduate application packet in order to include more students.

Suzanne Ortega, president of the DC-based Council of Graduate Schools also states that in spite of the increased number of graduate school applicants there is a reason for students to be hopeful regarding the admissions process. She believes that in spite of the fact that grades and test scores will still be important, applicants’ life experiences and other qualities may be given more weight than they had in the past. According to the news article, “Ortega thinks admissions teams may modify their calculus when choosing their next class.”

Determine Whether 2022 is a Good Time for Graduate School

The jury is out as to all of the reasons why there is a strong uptick in graduate applications because of the pandemic although there are some leads.

First, when an economy is weak and jobs decrease education generally trends upward. According to U.S. News and World Report, this is a normal trend. Quoting Linda Abraham, the founder of Accepted, the article says that “graduate admissions, in general, is counter-cyclical.” She goes on to say that applicants are usually inspired to finish school because of losing their jobs, fear of losing their jobs, or becoming professionally complacent.

The same evaluation processes that fit in non-pandemic times are all the more important during a pandemic. Cost-benefit analysis, long-term effects, as well as clarifying intentions and personal challenges may be even more important than usual. Current applicants must also take into account the safety precautions of their school of choice and possibly weigh online vs. traditional graduate school.

Personal Growth vs. Stable Future

Because of the lockdowns and job loss, many Americans have had more time to evaluate their lives. This could also be leading to the increased number of graduate school applicants. The importance of one’s contribution to the world, as well as the level of contentment with where one is at, can all be questioned when things slow down. Graduate school gives individuals the chance to learn and better themselves, along with being around others who are doing the same.

Arguably, self-improvement, as well as a desire to better one’s community, may be two of the best reasons to pursue graduate education. However, if finances are low and paying for graduate school will be an overwhelming burden either now or down the road, it may be better to save money before starting that master’s or doctorate. Again, the CBA or cost-benefit analysis is a good way to take all things into account.

Make Sure your School of Choice Meets General and Personal Safety Standards

Each graduate school is working to make their campus as safe as they can, but that may look different from school to school. Just as school standards of safety vary, personal standards may as well. Decide what you feel comfortable with and make sure that your school of choice meets those standards. A learning environment must be a place in which students feel comfortable. A few questions to begin with when determining the safety standards of a graduate school are:

  • Will social distancing be part of the campus experience?
  • If the school is holding exclusively online classes, are they well designed and implemented?
  • Is there a supportive atmosphere at the school for both students and staff?
  • Will the school have a graduate school cohort from which to gain support during this unprecedented time?
Consider Online Education

Although most schools are now becoming expert in administering online education since the beginning of the pandemic, there is no question that online schools were ahead of the game. Having honed their online techniques, they ironed out difficulties and hired tech staff long before 2020. Online schools have had a running start on schools that focused more on traditional education.

Graduate school online may not be what one planned, but being at home may have become more comfortable in the past months and attending online can certainly cut down on cost. Although few PhDs and research doctorates are offered online, master’s degrees and professional doctorates are more available. Studying online during a pandemic may allow students to save money while still improving grades, continue working and also fulfill their dream of higher education.

Be Flexible

This could be the best advice for America in 2022! Learning flexibility is hopefully one of the upsides to the Covid-19 pandemic. If applying to an in-person graduate program, be prepared for change ahead of time. At this point, no one knows exactly what will happen and although continuity is high on the list of importance for university faculty, they also are at the mercy of the virus.

Keep an eye on travel policies and be prepared to return to online education if you are attending in person. It may have an impact on deciding to go to graduate school if you feel as though upheaval in the middle of a semester will cause your health, mentally or physically, to suffer. Learning preferences are an important thing to consider along with continuing to be in touch with schools of interest and preparing for change.

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor