Valley students pursuing master's as plan B

Business is booming in graduate schools here and around the country as more students seek shelter from the lousy job market.

At Fresno State, graduate-level applications for the fall jumped about 15%. The increase is nearly 10% at Fresno Pacific University.

The figures reflect a national trend driven by the poor economy, a lackluster job market and the promise of higher-paying jobs for those with advanced degrees, experts say.

Bernie Vinovrski, associate vice president for enrollment services at Fresno State, called the application increase a sign of the times.

"When there are no jobs, you kind of want to stay in school and get another degree," he said.

The Washington, D.C.-based Council of Graduate Schools doesn't have hard data yet for fall 2010. But a survey of more than 200 universities showed a roughly 6% increase in enrollment for new students last fall.

The few anecdotal reports so far show the trend is continuing. Nathan Bell, the council's director of research and policy analysis, said a recession typically fuels more interest in graduate school.

"One of the big factors right now is the economy, the job market," he said.

Only about a quarter of college graduates this year have jobs waiting after commencement, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Bell also said some students may hedge their bets by applying both to graduate school and employers.

Georgianna Negron, who graduated from Fresno State last month with a bachelor's in psychology, is someone who thought about entering the job market. She weighed employment prospects, even though she's always intended to enter graduate school to build a foundation for a career in research or academia. But that idea died quickly when she didn't see a job opening that matched her interests. So this fall, Negron will enter a two-year program to earn a master's degree in psychology.

"Two years doesn't feel like a long time for me," said Negron, 26, formerly of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "And there will be more opportunity" for jobs later.

At Fresno State, Vinovrski said he has fielded more than 400 more master's and credential applications than he did last year: 3,251 vs. 2,834.

He figures about 60% of those applicants will be admitted based on general admission standards and other considerations -- such as space and standardized tests -- in individual schools. But fewer than that will enroll.

The rise in applications comes as Fresno State -- like other California State University campuses -- trims enrollment due to state budget cuts. Officials hope to open the fall with about 19,300 students -- roughly 2,000 fewer than fall 2009 and around the same level as a decade ago.

Against that backdrop, applications at all levels -- from prospective freshmen to graduate students -- have increased despite tough admission deadlines.

Karen Carey, dean of the Division of Graduate Studies, said the graduate applications are up in all kinds of programs, from business to engineering.

Carey said many prospective students already are working and may be trying to boost credentials in case they are laid off later and must find another job. While it is hard to predict how many students will enroll, Carey said she thinks "a lot of them will come if they get in."

Paul Beare, dean in the Kremen School of Education and Human Development, said he's seeing more interest in master's degrees than credential programs. The master's in counseling -- aimed at training school counselors and marriage and family therapists -- is growing in popularity.

Over the last few years, "we've turned away more students than we accepted -- we can't handle the demand," Beare said.

At Fresno Pacific, a Mennonite Brethren-affiliated university in southeast Fresno, graduate school applications also have surged for the fall.

Stephen Varvis, vice president for enrollment management, said applications are up nearly 10% over last year. Officials expected that uptick in 2008 -- when the economy began to sour -- but it didn't happen.

"The recession was severe enough, and it shocked people," said Varvis, who mined insight from students. "They weren't ready to take action or new risks -- like student loans."

That has changed. The university's graduate school numbers aren't huge -- 395 applications compared to 360 last year. But figures may grow as the campus continues to accept applications over the summer, Varvis said.