Who Goes to Graduate School and Who Succeeds?

By Rachel Fenton

In January, Sandy Baum with the Urban Institute and Patricia Steele with Higher Ed Insight published the research brief Who Goes to Graduate School and Who Succeeds?  This brief explores the changes over time in graduate degree attainment and earnings levels.  It also analyzes demographic differences in enrollment and graduate school completion.

Among the key findings:

  • Twelve percent of adults age 25 or older had a graduate degree in 2015, an increase from 10 percent in 2005 and eight percent in 1995.
    • Master’s degrees represented 75 percent of advanced degrees in 2015. The remaining advanced degrees were professional or doctorate degrees.
  • The percentage of college graduates enrolling in graduate school has been increasing. Within four years of graduating from college, nearly 40 percent (39%) of all 2007-08 bachelor’s degree recipients enrolled in graduate school, an increase from 1992-93 when 34 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients enrolled in graduate school.
  • College graduates from higher income families are more likely to enroll in graduate school. Forty-five percent of dependent 2007-08 four-year college graduates from the highest income quartile enrolled in graduate school within four years of college graduation, compared to 39 percent of their peers from families in the lowest income quartile.
  • Demographic factors, including race, ethnicity and gender, were related to whether a student enrolled in a master’s, doctoral or professional degree program. Of the 2007-08 bachelor’s degree recipients who enrolled in graduate school as of 2012, 74 percent of women selected master’s degree programs, 11 percent selected professional programs and 5 percent selected doctoral programs.  In comparison, 66 percent of men selected master’s degree programs, 17 percent selected professional programs and 8 percent selected doctoral programs.
  • More black 2007-08 bachelor’s degree recipients enrolled in graduate school within four years than any other racial/ethnic group (45% black, 42% Asian, 38% white and 36% Hispanic). This finding is particularly striking since “black students earning bachelor’s degrees who are in a position to consider graduate school are a much smaller share of their age group than white and Asian college graduates.”
    • Black students tend to enroll in master’s degree programs, which lead to lower earnings than professional or doctoral programs.
  • The graduate degree completion rate varied by the type of advanced degree. For 1992-93 Bachelor’s degree recipients who enrolled in graduate school by 2003, the 10-year completion rate was 77 percent for professional degree recipients, 76 percent for doctoral degree recipients and 61 percent for Master’s degree recipients.
  • Those with an advanced degree earned significantly more than their peers with only a bachelor’s degree. In 2015, 35- to 44-year-olds with a master’s degree earned an average of $87,320, compared to $71,100 for peers with a bachelor’s degree. Average earnings for 35- to 44-year-olds with doctoral ($116,090) and professional ($159,210) degrees were even higher.