The two types of master's programs growing the fastest

To capture new enrollments, colleges will have to offer new programs

by Jennifer Mason, Senior Director

Master's degrees are growing faster than degrees at any other level, and experts predict that by 2022 they'll make up nearly a third of all degrees awarded. But to capture these new enrollments, colleges and universities will have to offer different degree programs than those that generated the huge spike in master's enrollments in the recent past.

Yesterday's opportunities

Currently, just four fields—business, education, law, and health care—award 62% of all graduate degrees, and much of the growth in graduate degrees across the last two decades came from these fields' flagship programs: the MBA, the MEd, and the JD. (Health care's enrollments span a wider range of programs, from nursing to physical therapy.)

Master's in health care are continuing to see robust growth, but flagship degrees in the other three fields are facing serious threats to enrollment.

Demand for MBAs and JDs is declining in the face of market saturation, wavering value, weak job market, and high student debt. Even if demand were rising, accreditation standards, high fixed cost of facilities, and potential adverse effects on rankings can make expanding enrollment in these programs difficult or impossible.

In education, demand for the MEd has been weakened by policy upheavals. Over the last few years, states have scrutinized teacher education, and several have rolled back policies that guaranteed automatic salary bumps for teachers with advanced degrees. This, combined with frozen school budgets, sluggish hiring, and changes to the K-12 teaching environment (such as a growing emphasis on assessment), has made the MEd a less desirable degree.

While programs in health professions are seeing applications rise, difficulty finding enough clinical placements and faculty is impeding growth here as well.

Where enrollment growth is concentrated

New specialized programs in core disciplines and new niche programs customized to new roles

So if not in the historically popular degrees, where will the growth in master's enrollments come from? Programs with the fastest rates of growth fall into two categories.

The first is new specialized programs in the core professional fields that appeal to populations of students beyond those served by the field’s flagship degree. These programs include:

  • Non-MBA master's in business, such as the master's in marketing and communications
  • Master's of laws (LLM) programs for current lawyers looking for specialization in fields such as taxation and programs for foreign-trained lawyers seeking exposure to U.S. law

Programs such as these enable schools to grow enrollments (in many cases with existing courses and faculty) without lowering admission standards of flagship programs and damaging their rankings.

The second category—showing the fastest rate of growth—is new niche offerings that are targeted not to large, well established professions (such as lawyers and teachers) but to new and rapidly changing industries and roles, such as cybersecurity, data analytics, and health informatics. Unlike traditional professional programs, which depend on brand recognition and rankings to attract students, niche programs attract students by being highly customized to their specific industry and role. For this reason, a much larger range of institutions can compete effectively for these enrollments.

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