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Freshmen Are More Likely to Aspire to Advanced Degrees


Although students may anticipate taking additional time to complete their baccalaureate degree, they increasingly enter college thinking not just about their bachelor’s degree but also their master’s and even doctoral degrees. Whereas 40 years ago, more than half (50.8%) of incoming first-year students aspired to earn no more than a bachelor’s degree, less than one in four students in 2014 (23.4%) shared similar aspirations. Between 1974 and 2014, the percentage of students entering college with plans to earn a master’s degree increased from 28.1% to 43.6%, while students indicating they would like to earn a doctorate or first professional degree (Ph.D., Ed.D., M.D., or J.D.) similarly increased from 21.1% to 32.9%. Part of the increase aligns with rising participation rates and degree ambitions of female students. Today, women (36%) are more likely than men (29.4%) to express a desire to earn a doctorate or first professional degree, and women increasingly comprise a larger percentage of students at four-year institutions. In 1974, female students were much less likely (15.3%) to aspire to a doctorate or first professional degree compared to their male peers (26.3%).

All students may also have higher degree aspirations due to the labor market. Increasingly, many entry-level positions require a college degree; students may be recognizing that, in order to advance further, a graduate credential is becoming more necessary. Another factor contributing to the increase in graduate degree aspirations is that, over the

past 40 years, the discrepancy between first generation students’ degree ambitions and their continuing-generation peers has continued to shrink. In 1974, 41.9% of first-generation students aspired to graduate degrees compared to 55.1% of their continuing-generation peers (see Figure 2). In 2014, these differences were much less substantial. In 2014, 74.1% of first generation students planned to earn a graduate degree compared to 77.2% of students with at least one parent who attended college.

First-generation students (31.9%) are somewhat more likely than their continuing-generation peers (27%) to view their undergraduate institutions as the place where they will earn an advanced degree. These differences are important for advising offices helping students form post baccalaureate education plans.

This article is republished with permission from Inside Higher Ed.


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