Colleges seek growth through graduate programs. Will this market ever dry up?

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diving letter:

  • Many colleges are seeking growth through tertiary and adult education in the face of declining undergraduate student numbers, but these are competitive markets that face their own projected enrollment declines. according to a new report from the consulting company EAB.
  • Almost all presidents, cabinet members, provosts, and vice presidents for enrollment management who participated in a small survey indicated that increasing graduate and adult enrollment is a priority at their institutions. Every President and Provost rated this as a medium or major priority, as did 91% of enrollment managers.
  • Just over half of those surveyed said enrollment targets for their graduate and adult programs are higher now than they were when the pandemic began. A similar proportion, 56%, indicated that they have increased the number of programs they offer in adult and higher education since Spring 2020.

Dive insight:

For most years since the start of the Great Recession, college graduate numbers across the country have surged as the job market struggled to take hold and distance learning expanded. From 2007 to 2020, enrollments for master’s and doctoral programs rose annually in all but three years, according to federal data compiled by the EAB.

Graduate enrollment surged in 2020 amid the early disruptions of the pandemic. However, National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates Show graduate enrollment declined in 2021 and 2022.

Graduate and adult enrollment overall is still higher than before the pandemic, EAB said. But the consultancy concluded that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete in this space — even though this market has become increasingly important for many colleges.

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The EAB surveyed 64 university leaders this summer, most at institutions that award masters degrees and those with a high level of research activity. More than half of the institutions represented had fewer than 5,000 students.

Respondents did not rely heavily on tuition from graduate and adult student programs — these programs contributed less than 20% to net tuition income for nearly 6 in 10 respondents. EAB found that undergraduate enrollment deficits are increasing growth pressures on graduate programs.

Respondents split whether they invest lightly or heavily in online graduate programs. About 4 in 10 said they have less than 25% of their programs available online, and 1 in 3 said they offer over 75% of their programs online.

Online growth is a priority. Over 80% of respondents cited expanding online registration and offerings as a high or medium priority. Only 16% said expanding hybrid or low-residence options is a high priority.

The EAB asked executives to identify up to three types of programs that they believe can grow. The most common answers were allied health, cited by 60.9% of respondents, economics, cited by 54.7%, and nursing, cited by 45.3%.

Meanwhile, college leaders say they’re struggling to set realistic enrollment goals because of the pandemic. Four out of 10 survey respondents indicated that setting reasonable enrollment goals was the most challenging aspect of operating their graduate and adult programs.

The top barriers to growing online enrollment include competition from large institutions that operate primarily online, budget constraints, lack of faculty approval, and limited support services for students studying online, according to survey respondents.

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Despite the excitement about competition from alternative education providers, college leaders aren’t particularly concerned about companies like Google edging them out of the room. Only 10.6% indicated that competition from non-university providers is a major factor blocking their own enrollment growth. For comparison, 54.5% said the same about competition from other universities.

Staff planning is also a challenge. Six out of ten respondents indicated that staffing levels in higher education and adult education have not changed since 2020.

Exactly where graduate and adult programs are included in organization charts varies greatly from institution to institution. This makes it difficult to compare key indicators such as headcount and allocated resources.

The senior manager for graduate and adult programs reports to the provost at 56.1% of institutions. This position reports to the President in 27.3% of institutions and to a Vice or Associate Provost in 7.6% of institutions. EAB found that Presidents often oversaw graduate and adult programs at private institutions.

“Organizational challenges remain a common hurdle,” says the EAB report. “Survey respondents working in public institutions disproportionately cited ‘coordination efforts within the institution’ and ‘lack of clear governance for graduate and adult programs’ as top challenges.”

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