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Job drop fills grad schools
As Florida's economy lags and unemployment rises, applications reach new heights.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 23, 2007
TAMPA - Florida's economy continues to sag, but the state's 11 public universities are enjoying a related benefit: a record number of aspiring graduate students.
Universities have had a 13.4 percent spike in their graduate student applications, from 47,674 for fall 2006 to 54,065 for the academic year that began in August, according to new figures.
A little more than half were accepted, resulting in a 7 percent increase in graduate school enrollment this year over last.
The spike mirrors a 27 percent rise in the state's unemployment rate in recent months. But the volume of graduate school applications surprised even seasoned higher education officials who have seen unemployment rates and graduate school interest rise in tandem before.
"This is the largest increase in graduate school applications, in both number and percentage, as far back as our records go," said state university system chancellor Mark Rosenberg. "Our universities are helping people in the Florida work force prepare for career changes and new opportunities."
The trend is a boon to schools like the University of South Florida, which is trying to improve the size and caliber of its graduate ranks as part of its research mission.
Of all the state's public institutions, USF saw some of the most significant growth, and in several areas.
Its graduate enrollment grew by 8 percent, or more than 600 students, to 8,839. That increase was double that of the state's other two major research institutions, the University of Florida and Florida State University.
The surge means that graduate students now represent nearly 20 percent of USF's total 45,000 enrollment, up from 18.4 percent last year.
Much of the growth came in biology and health science fields, including nursing, where there is great demand for more practicing nurses and nursing professors.
USF has responded to that demand by adding more graduate-level programs. Two years ago, USF became the first college in Florida to add a doctor of nursing practice program.
While the magnitude of this year's rise in applications is unprecedented, the increase itself is predictable, given the souring economy.
Graduate school application and unemployment information dating back to 1990 show a clear trend: When unemployment rates go up, so do the number of people trying to get into graduate school.
For example, unemployment was up 29 percent in September 2002 over the previous year. Graduate school applications for the same period rose by 11 percent.
In 2005, when state employment was down 20 percent, graduate school applications dropped 4 percent.
Community colleges typically experience the same phenomenon.
Many of the graduate students are hoping to boost their strength as a job candidate in a tight market by adding a higher degree; for others, it's simply a way to wait out the economy's lag.
Another factor in the rising graduate enrollment is foreign students, whose numbers declined after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks but are going back up.
The only downside, Rosenberg said, is that the state's already crowded institutions can't fully meet the new demand for higher-level degrees.
Even though graduate enrollment is up, the acceptance rate for graduate school dropped from 56 percent in 2006 to 53 percent this year.
He said universities should expand their graduate offerings, a change that will be considered as the Board of Governors in coming months considers the system's growth.
USF's plans already include increasing the size and caliber of its graduate-level ranks.