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Graduate Enrollment Sees ‘Unprecedented’ Growth

As the pandemic upends plans and jobs, students are earning advanced degrees to improve employment options, reinvent themselves

Posted in: Admissions, Graduate School, Homepage News

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The COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with The Graduate School’s ability to provide high-quality virtual instruction, and online enrollment services and outreach, has led to a dramatic increase in graduate enrollment at Montclair State this fall.

Students of all ages – fresh out of college or decades into careers – are reinventing themselves to face a new reality.

“It’s tough to have a plan these days,” says Patrick Sharpe ’20, BFA Musical Theatre, who was on a train into New York City on March 12 to meet with agents when they called to cancel, saying “Broadway is closed.”

“I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t know when the theater will be picking up again,” says Sharpe. “That’s when I came up with the idea of going back to school for the master’s in French at Montclair State.”

Growth Across All Programs

Even amid years of robust expansion to 100 graduate degree programs, fall 2020 enrollment increases at The Graduate School stand out: Completed applications are up 9% over fall 2019, submitted applications for prospective students under the age of 25 increased by over 28%, accepted students have increased more than 8%, and the number of newly enrolled graduate students has grown more than 19%.

“We have seen a steady increase through this entire cycle, not only for applications but also the level of interest in graduate study,” says Bryan Moschel, director of Admissions and Operations, The Graduate School. Moschel called the increases “unprecedented.”

The Graduate School has seen growth across most programs, but most aggressively in areas ”that speak to our current situation” – such as Public Health, Clinical Psychology, Child Advocacy and Policy, Social Work, Data Science, Applied Mathematics, and even Business Administration.

Danielle Tropea has been working for more than six years as a hospital-based lactation consultant, but realized she wanted to affect behavior change among parents and health-care professionals on a larger scale. She’s now pursuing a Master of Public Health at Montclair State.

“Becoming an MPH was going to be a necessary step to gain a better understanding of the reliability of current research, learn how to conduct new solid studies, design interventions, and influence and/or craft policy,” says Tropea.

The big contributing factor to the increased enrollment and interest is clearly the global COVID-19 pandemic, says Moschel. “People are interested in upscaling, changing careers or staying relevant in their careers. A graduate degree is a good way to create something that’s long-lasting. You might have been someone very tethered to their job and that went away, and you are starting from square one.”

For those with jobs, “they may have felt themselves becoming stale,” says Moschel. “This pandemic and its economic fallout forces people to think about not being a part of that next time around.”

“I’ve always known that constant change is the only stable thing in life; therefore, I decided to explore new fields and gain new experiences to develop myself socially, economically and academically,” says Azza Abugharsa, who already has a PhD in Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) and Linguistics from Oklahoma State University. While teaching Arabic at Montclair State, Abugharsa learned about the Computational Linguistics program. “MSU has opened the gate for me to dive into these enriching topics and helped me better plan for my future endeavors.”

Offering Quality Virtual Programs

The Graduate School was at the forefront of offering quality online education long before the pandemic, notes Associate Dean Nelly Lejter Morales. She reports that virtual offerings have played a significant role in the increased enrollment numbers.

Besides the existing online offerings, “We were able to create in record time an online program for virtual learning for students with disabilities. We are endeavoring to create new programs that are responding to needs in the labor market.”

The quality of virtual programs has been cited by the new graduate students. Tropea, the MPH student, says she transferred to Montclair State after the first program she attended elsewhere  “felt like a correspondence school.” At Montclair State, she’s been impressed with the “tightly knit” adult student community as well as instruction: “Even with the rapid conversion to an online-only format, my professors have managed to keep classes captivating and interactive.”

Lejter Morales notes that many prospective students are expressing interest in certifications. There is increased interest in skills-based, shorter online credentials that are clearly tied to a career.

Montclair State’s Graduate School offers numerous additional attributes that make it attractive.

“We are a larger midsize institution with a lot of recent growth which breeds excitement,” says Moschel.

He reports that new students are impressed with campus facilities but also the number and breadth of graduate programs, the flexibility in terms of full time/part time programs, affordability, quality and accessibility.

Scott Herness, Vice Provost for Research and Dean of The Graduate School, has called Montclair State a “hidden jewel.”

“We check a lot of boxes for prospective graduate students,” says Moschel. “The perceived value is very high.”

A Seamless Enrollment Process

Graduate Admissions has also made it easier to navigate the process, meeting potential students where they are and being available to them, including through virtual open houses and information sessions.

Indeed, as many universities scrambled last spring to reinvent outreach in a suddenly all virtual environment, The Graduate School seemed prescient in offering well-planned and executed virtual information sessions on a weekly basis.

“It was something we had been working on for some time,” said Moschel. “It came in handy at this time because we realized there was a lot of interest in the spring that we would not have seen normally.”

Moschel thinks the experience will change Graduate Admissions permanently.

“This has pushed people in a direction that they weren’t anticipating and as long as we can meet people’s needs, that’s what we’re here for.”

For students like Patrick Sharpe, whose graduate studies in French include a concentration in Translation, The Graduate School was definitely there when he needed it.

“I plan to turn that into something that works in tandem with the theater as it picks back up again or to do something part time while I’m waiting for the theater to come back.”

“Whatever happens with theater, at least I’m not sitting here wasting my time.”


Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann and contributed reporting by Marilyn Lehren.

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