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Is COVID Leading More People to Graduate School?

When the COVID-19 pandemic first began, no one could foresee how far its impact would spread. Therefore, the question on a lot of people’s minds is: has COVID led more people to graduate school? Let's take a look at the issue...

Apr 13, 2021
Is COVID Leading More People to Graduate School?

In the United Kingdom

Despite concerns the UK is headed towards one of the worst economic downturns in history, over 36% of finalists surveyed by Prospects indicated that they now plan to remain in higher education rather than start their careers, according to. History has shown this is a familiar course of action, with students often choosing to stay in school rather than face a harsh work market during other times of economic uncertainty. Since many students found themselves having job offers rescinded after graduation, they’re instead choosing to pursue a master's or PhD to help delay entry into the workforce, as well as increase their viability to prospective employers.

Business degrees are popular in the United States:

Across the pond, students are turning towards an area that often seems more immune to economic declines: business. However, students stated even before the pandemic, they “always plan[ned] to pursue a graduate business degree.” With the understanding that work environments won’t continue to look the same after the virus subsides, business schools in the United States are scrambling to accommodate an influx in applicants, with prestigious schools like the University of Pennsylvania having reported “double-digit percentage application increases for their fall 2020 classes.” They’re also adapting their curriculums to meet these workplace changes. Despite global uncertainty, international students are still choosing the United States as one of their top destinations when it comes to pursuing a business degree.

Public health has become a popular choice

According to NPR, “Catastrophic events have, historically, raised interest in career paths.” Similar to the drastic increase in interest in military careers following the 9/11 terrorist attack, there’s been an increase in interest in public health following the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, many institutions, for example the University of Buffalo (UB) and Damen College, have noticed significant rises in their applicant numbers for their public health programs. The pandemic has even changed education paths for students. Prior to the pandemic, University of Buffalo student Jonathan Lim planned to go into business after graduating. Now, his plans have changed as he watched how different countries handled the outbreak of the virus. Additionally, UB graduate student Katherine Connelly plans to pursue a PhD in epidemiology, in the hopes of addressing the underlying causes that allowed the pandemic to become widespread.

More students turn to law school

Even though law schools saw increased interest over the last few years, “The coronavirus pandemic has changed the law school admissions landscape in significant ways, and those changes may partly explain the uptick in early J.D. applications, according to legal education experts,” according to the U.S. News & World Report. The Law School Admission Council reported in December 2020 that applications to U.S. law schools so far this year were around 35% higher than at the same point 12 months before. Due to the increased levels of applicants, it’s recommended law school hopefuls get a jump on their application process, and get their materials in as soon as possible. However, don’t let the numbers daunt you. If applying to law school is your dream, now’s as good a time as ever to work towards making it a reality, as the pandemic has cast into sharp relief inequalities present in society which the lawyers of tomorrow can combat.

By the numbers

Looking ahead, graduate schools were prepared for an influx of students for Fall 2020. Graduate school deans who participated in a survey indicated they expected higher levels of applicants, and a “modest decline in the overall enrollment.”

Other schools are taking advantage of the opportunity for more directed outreach. The University of California Berkeley focused on helping minority students apply to graduate school, with great results. According to UC Berkeley, “While overall graduate applications have increased 19 percent when compared to last year, the number of underrepresented minority (URM) doctoral applicants increased by 42 percent and URM applicants to academic master’s programs increased by 82 percent.”

In Canada, students are “applying to graduate schools in increasing numbers, a phenomenon often seen during times of economic downturns but with some significant differences during a global pandemic, experts say.” Universities are seeing 25-31% increase in applicants to their graduate programs, which is a significant increase in last year’s applicant cycles.

As COVID-19 dried up job prospects in Australia, many students faced the decision to go onto graduate school, or remain for additional semesters in their current program. “The pivot to postgraduate studies appears to be a trend among WA universities,” with schools reporting significant increases in applications to postgraduate programs.

Undoubtedly, COVID-19 has changed the world in more ways than one, or can even be fully understood at this point. Students will continue to face the challenges of figuring out if entering the job market is right for them, or if they want to continue on for more advanced education. No matter what they decide, they’re sure to be in the company of others who are also trying to plan their next steps.

Chelsea Castonguay


Chelsea is a Student Affairs expatriate, who now works as a freelance writer and editor. She homesteads in a small town in rural Maine, USA. She enjoys hiking, fishing, cooking, reading, all things Laura Ingalls Wilder, spending time with her family, and chasing her black lab puppy, Cash.