Job hunters polishing skills

Scholars: With jobs harder to find, applications to local graduate schools are up by 25 percent to 30 percent.

March 06, 2002|By Liz Steinberg | Liz Steinberg,SUN STAFF

Graduate school applications are increasing at a greater rate this year as college graduates and workers try to catch an edge in a tight job market.

Local universities reported increases of 25 percent to 30 percent in applications for fall 2002 compared with last year. Nationally, graduate program applications increased 4 percent between 1999 and 2000, the latest year for which data are available, according to the Washington-based Council of Graduate Schools.

Master's degree students, who make up 80 percent of the 1.7 million graduate students nationally, are driving the trend, said Peter Syverson, vice president of research for the council.

"When the economy turns down historically, and it appears to be the case now, graduate applications tend to go up," said Gary Ostrander, chair of the Graduate Board at the Johns Hopkins University.

Doctoral programs at Hopkins' Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, one of the institution's eight degree-granting divisions, have received nearly 3,000 applications for fall 2002, an increase of 25 percent to 30 percent compared with last year. Other internal factors, such as switching to online applications and dropping application fees for some programs, may also have caused the jump, Ostrander said.

These trends are driven in part by students such as Kris Jansma, a junior writing major at Hopkins. Facing a difficult job market, more undergraduates are adding grad school to the repertoire of possibilities in order to both postpone and increase chances of getting a job.

Jansma, 19, said he had been toying with the idea of graduate school when he participated in a school-sponsored tour of communications companies in January. The trip to New York City, which took students to corporations including AOL Time Warner, was designed to give the undergraduates a head start finding jobs and networking.

"Most of [the companies] said, `we're not hiring anybody next year,'" Jansma said.

At that point, "a lot of people on the trip with me decided to go to grad school," said Jansma, who plans to get a master's degree in creative writing and pursue a teaching job.

Now that more people are attending college, "having a graduate degree looks better" to employers, said 21-year-old Hopkins junior Andrew Pinzler, a computer science major thinking of applying to business school.

Although no national statistics are available, fields teaching real world skills seem to be seeing the greatest increases in interest, according to university and national spokespeople.

"Departments that are most closely related to employment [such as] education, engineering and business are doing fairly well in terms of increases in applications and enrollment," said Syverson of the Council of Graduate Schools. Engineering includes computer science-related fields.

"The IT areas and education are probably our biggest growth areas," said Scott A. Bass, dean of the graduate school at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

So far, 361 people have applied to UMBC's computer science master's program and 110 to the doctorate program, compared with 260 and 74, respectively, at this time last year, Bass said.

The computer science program has received a handful of applications from people whose dot-com companies have folded, director Charles Nicholas added.

UMBC's graduate school has received 1,366 applications for next fall, a 30 percent increase compared with the 1,051 received at this time last year, Bass said. The number grew 18 percent between 2000 and 2001.

The trend is also evident in business and law school applications, said Cherie Scricca, assistant dean for master's programs at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. So far, applications for all graduate programs are up 28 percent to approximately 2,000, Scricca said.

That figure includes applications for part-time MBA programs, which are up 120 percent. Although students in both programs have approximately five years of work experience, part-time students generally remain in the work force while attending school, Scricca said.

Hopkins' economics department received 514 applications, compared with 377 at this time last year, a jump that may be connected to the economy, Ostrander speculated. The department has not undergone any significant changes in staffing, structure or application process in the last year, he said.

Psychology and human resources programs continue to draw strong interest at Towson University, said Dr. Jin Gong, dean of the College of Graduate Education and Research.

Although Towson doesn't have final figures for fall applications, the graduate school received 10,378 inquiries between July 1, 2000, and June 30, 2001, a 50 percent increase compared with the corresponding period the year before.

More applicants may also make the admissions process more selective.

"At a time when demand may be increasing, capacity may not," said the graduate council's Syverson.

Elite, private universities such as Hopkins will not increase enrollment. However, strong candidates who would have taken industry or consulting jobs in a different job market now will be competing to enter grad school, Ostrander said.

Admissions will "be tougher, much tougher, in some cases," he said.

Tight budgets will constrict public universities' growth in some states.

"We certainly would like to request more new resources in order to facilitate or provide for the educational needs of the region," Gong said. However, some graduate programs may have to become more selective.

"Due to the budget situation, it's unlikely" Towson will get the funds needed to expand, he said.

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