The State of Psychology Education
July 9, 2024

Though the number of people pursuing psychology degrees have increased, a decline in college enrollment numbers is causing concern. This trend has raised questions within academic circles and among prospective students about the future of psychology. This article explores these trends—and the effect they may have on the field. We also look at why promoting psychology to younger generations matters and what the future of psychology holds.

Psychology degree program trends 

The American Psychological Association (APA) reports between 2012 and 2021, trends showed increases in the number of psychology degrees awarded at all degree levels. The report reveals: 

  • bachelor's degrees increased by 16% 
  • master's degrees increased by 17% 
  • doctoral degrees increased by 14% 


However, the APA also revealed that in 2023, higher education enrollment was lower than pre-pandemic levels. Anticipated future drops in higher education enrollment may result in fewer students pursuing psychology degrees. 

As higher education enrollment has declined, GRE requirements have dropped. APA reveals the percentage of psychology graduate programs requiring GRE scores decreased substantially between 2020 and 2022 and continued to decrease in the 2022–23 academic year. What do these trends suggest? Some experts feel that graduate programs have reduced their emphasis on standardized test scores to help increase enrollment numbers. 

The decrease in psychology degree program enrollments is a multifaceted issue. However, to understand why numbers have dropped, it's essential to tackle the reasons behind the decline.

Causes behind program decline 

The “Great Enrollment Cliff” 

The financial recession in 2008 rocked the U.S. economy, and with this, birth rates plummeted. Today, higher education is feeling the impact, especially psychology programs. Experts are calling this phenomenon the “Great Enrollment Cliff.” How will the declining birth rate affect colleges and universities? 

The Hechinger Report reveals college enrollment may fall by 15% by 2029. Currently, schools are experiencing fewer students, resulting in canceled classes and less funding. Addressing the “great enrollment cliff” is essential to ensuring institutional longevity, and psychology programs are no exception.

Financial Bottlenecks 

Higher education costs and student debt have skyrocketed, leading many students to reconsider their academic choices based on potential return on investment. For example, for students aiming for a master’s degree, the average costs are $59,060 for public universities and $87,950 for private institutions. 

Advanced degrees can be financially burdensome. As a result, pursuing a career in a field that requires advanced degrees may be less attractive. Instead, students are trending toward professions that promise higher pay or are entering fields with better cost benefits, such as those requiring less schooling. 

Career Burnout 

APA reports that a survey found that from 2021 through 2023, early and midcareer psychologists consistently reported higher stress levels than senior career psychologists. The survey also revealed earlier career psychologists were more likely to report feeling burned out than psychologists in later stages of their career. High stress levels may cause psychologists to switch fields, retire early, or lead less productive careers.

Trends and impacts on psychology 

How could the drop in psychology program enrollment affect the field? APA reports it could harm the quality of education and training, psychological research, and patient care. One report predicts this shortage of mental health counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists will continue well into 2036. 

In addition, the gap between the need for mental health providers and access is wider among marginalized populations, including those in rural areas. One report shows that less than half of U.S. counties lack a single psychiatrist. This gap will only continue to grow if the decline in psychology program enrollment continues. Pursuing research careers among mental health professionals has also lowered due to several obstacles, including inadequate training and financial constraints, according to one report. With a drop-off in enrollment, this decrease will only continue.

Why promoting psychology to younger generations matters 

Despite all the challenges in the field, psychologists are still hopeful. Mental health professionals and higher education faculty are finding innovative ways to show the utility of a degree in psychology. Below, the APA highlights these measures. 

  • Introducing psychology programs with a broader appeal and integrating them into different courses such as management, social work, and marketing. 
  • Calling attention to how psychologists contribute to pressing societal issues, such as studying ways to reduce racism and other forms of bias in different settings.
  • Emphasizing the valuable skills taught in degree programs. APA's Skillful Psychology Student Guide describes abilities such as analytical thinking and leadership that can prepare students to succeed in various occupations. 
  • Strengthening pathways into the field for students at community colleges, those looking for a career switch, and nontraditional students (midcareer professionals). 
  • Giving credit for nontraditional learning experiences (work or internships) and offering flexible options for studying. 
  • Advocating for financial reform in higher education, including student loan forgiveness and graduate student unions. 

Benefits of diversity in psychology 

With all the ways professionals and college faculty attract new students to the field, diversifying the psychology pipeline to be representative of the population is of utmost importance. For example, the APA reported that half of Asian Americans do not get treatment for mental health issues due to a language barrier, and only a little over 2% of those earning a doctorate in psychology identify as Asian. A diverse population of providers may help encourage individuals who had otherwise not pursued mental health services to seek the assistance they need. 

Attracting different cultures, races, religions, and backgrounds to psychology will also open the door to more diversified courses and training, creating more multiculturally competent psychologists. 

The future of psychology 

Despite the current decline in enrollment, psychology remains a vital discipline. The overall occupation is expected to grow 6% from 2022 to 2032. 

Educational institutions and industry professionals are making positive strides to address these enrollment challenges and highlight the value and versatility of psychology degrees. Through these efforts, psychology students have insight into the future of the field, helping them to navigate the evolving landscape of psychology and better position themselves for success.