Issue Brief: Grad School Completion Rates, Earnings Greater Among Higher-Income Students

By Brittany Hackett, Communications Staff

When it comes to graduate school, students with higher-income backgrounds are more likely to enroll, complete, and reap the financial benefits of an advanced degree, according to an issue brief from the Urban Institute.

The brief, which is the first in a series exploring issues surrounding graduate school, focuses on the enrollment and completion patterns among students who pursue advanced degrees. Future briefs will focus on the financial barriers associated with graduate degrees, including indebtedness and earnings outcomes.

According to the brief, 12 percent of adults ages 25 and older had completed graduate degrees in 2015, up from 10 percent in 2005 and only 8 percent in 1995. Thirty-nine percent of 2007-08 bachelor’s degree graduates enrolled in a graduate degree program within four years compared with 34 percent of student in the 1992-93 cohort, indicating that participation in advanced education has grown over time, according to the brief.

Master’s degrees made up 73 percent of advanced degrees in 2015, though the completion rates for master’s degree programs were lower (61 percent) than other programs, such as post-master’s certificate programs (74 percent) or doctoral programs (76 percent). Twenty-six percent of students who enrolled in master’s degree programs did not complete, compared with only 12 percent to 14 percent of students enrolled in other types of programs.

Family income plays a role in attending graduate school, with students from higher income quartiles enrolling in graduate school at higher rates than their lower income counterparts, obtaining degrees that have higher earnings premiums along the way. Among dependent 2007-08 four-year college graduates who enrolled in graduate school within four years of graduation, 45 percent were from the highest income quartile, 42 percent were from middle-income families, and 39 percent were from families in the lowest income quartile. Students from lower-income backgrounds are more likely to pursue master’s degrees, which often have lower earnings premiums than doctoral or professional degrees, according to the brief.

In terms of race or ethnicity, black college graduates are more likely to pursue an advanced degree than other groups, but are more likely to enroll in master’s degree programs that have lower earnings potential. Males, Asians, and students who were younger when they completed college who enrolled in graduate school were more likely to pursue professional degrees to enter law, medicine, and other high-earning careers. Women, black students, and students who completed their undergraduate degree later in life were more likely to pursue less-profitable master’s degree programs.

The brief also identifies advanced degree holders as higher earners, with 35- to 44-year-olds with master’s degrees holders having earnings that in 2015 were 23 percent higher than those with only a bachelor’s degree, $87,320 compared to $71,100.


Publication Date: 1/17/2017

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