Master’s degree programs in psychology are seeing a wave of new applicants—here’s why

BY Nicole Gull McElroyJanuary 31, 2023, 4:17 PM
Volunteers place flags on the lawn in front of Pepperdine University for their annual Wave of Flags display in Malibu, California, as ween in September 2021. (Photo by Hans Gutknecht—MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News/Getty Images)

In the last decade, the number of students going for master’s degrees in psychology rose roughly 19%, according to data collected by the National Center for Education Statistics. And that increase in enrollment doesn’t yet reflect any boost that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, and a greater awareness and need for qualified mental health professionals.

Some schools have seen a notable uptick in enrollment in recent years, as indicated by the data they shared as part of Fortune’s ranking of the best online master’s degree programs in psychology. Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, Golden Gate University saw enrollment in its master’s degree program increase nearly 83%, while enrollment in the comparable program rose almost 76% at Regent University and about 65% at Pepperdine University.

Looking at a longer period, the growth has been even more stark at No. 5-ranked Regent University. When Anna Ord started her role as dean at the university, the number of master’s degree candidates in the program was in the range of 20 to 25, she recalls. Now, enrollment in the psychology master’s program is 150 students, she adds.

“There’s a shift in the greater landscape in terms of how psychology is being leveraged—in business, education, policy making,” says Ord. “A master’s in psychology gives you a leg up in marketing. People go into all sorts of industries; a lot are switching to mental health fields.”

To learn more about what’s driving the surge in enrollment in these programs, Fortune spoke with Ord and an assistant dean from Pepperdine. Here’s what they said.

A path to accreditation

One reason driving the big jump in enrollment at Regent University, according to Ord, is a shift in policy made by the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest accrediting body for psychology programs in the country. 

“Prior to this, [accreditation] was reserved for Ph.D. programs,” says Ord. “In most cases, you needed a doctoral degree in health service psychology to get a license.” 

In 2019, the APA formed a task force to explore “pathways to accreditation on the master’s level.” It’s an effort, says Ord, to give a master’s program a stamp of approval from the APA. Schools need to apply for accreditation and can use it as a way to bolster their programs to prospective students, who can then, in turn, leverage their accredited degree to communicate the level of work they did on the master’s level when applying to jobs or starting a practice. 

While this shift is still in its early stages, many schools have applied for approval and the APA reports that they’ll have some approvals in February 2023, as noted on the APA website. In addition, the organization is in the process of recruiting volunteer consultants to help with the process, and has tentatively scheduled accreditation to begin in 2024. Ord says that this move could signal to students that should they earn their master’s in psychology in the future, they’ll perhaps be emerging to the workforce from a school with a seal of approval from the APA. 

Broader career growth

Master’s degree programs in psychology are also appealing to a broader set of students, and getting an advanced degree helps broaden a base of already established skills to offer more choice and optionality in career growth for graduates. 

At Pepperdine University, some of the jump in enrollment has been driven by companies that are encouraging employees to pursue an advanced degree, according to Robert deMayo, associate dean and program director of the master’s in psychology program. In addition to being the No. 1 program on Fortune’s ranking, the university also has the largest enrollment among those schools surveyed, at 309 students. A lot of employers see supporting their employees through an advanced degree program helps boost morale, strengthen the company’s growth trajectory, and retain staff, he adds. 

Similarly, Regent has made some changes to accommodate these types of students—and Ord says she has helped build out five additional concentrations in the school’s psychology program. 

“One of the highest in demand was industrial organizational psychology,” she says. “It isn’t necessarily in the mental health field, but to be in the research lab or to be a consultant in an organization it helps to have a master’s in psychology. We have seen a lot of growth there.” 

Post-pandemic shift

At Pepperdine University, deMayo cites a pandemic effect when he considers the forces behind the jump in enrollment there—from 187 students in fall 2019 to 309 in fall 2021. “We are finding an increase in applications from individuals who have worked in non-psychology fields,” says deMayo. “We notice that the pandemic led people to reflect on their current situation. Many are seeking career shifts to fields that will hold more meaning for them.”

This type of reckoning may help to keep a steady influx of master’s degree candidates in psychology programs, as Ord has noticed a similar trend.

“We have seen a lot of people say I’m home and have the internet and want to go to school—this is a good time for me to do it,” Ord says. What’s more, some students had the opportunity to gravitate toward degrees they weren’t necessarily able to explore when they were traveling, commuting, and doing other activities that the pandemic put on hold, she adds. 

“In some ways in academia, the Great Resignation means the great transition. The work force isn’t shrinking—it’s that people are going to different fields they feel more passionate about.”

Check out all of Fortune’rankings of degree programs, and learn more about specific career paths.