7 Things We Learned About Graduate and Online Enrollment in 2021

Jacob DavidsonMarket Research InternDecember 16, 2021
7 Things We Learned About Graduate and Online Enrollment in 2021

Over the past year, we all had to learn a new way to “do” higher education—such as the ongoing movement toward distance education, the increasing reticence of institutions to work with OPMs, the need for more sophisticated and effective graduate marketing, or the pandemic forcing colleges and universities to change quickly in order to survive.

Through all this adversity, we here at RNL learned a lot also: better understanding what graduate students are looking for, how to apply those findings to help institutions market toward these students, and how to help institutions develop strategies to free themselves from their OPMs (or never having to consider them).

Here are some of the key things we learned in the past year about graduate and online enrollment.

Insights into graduate education

1. The majority of graduate students are in hybrid or online programs

In the past year, online enrollment grew by 93 percent and graduate enrollment grew by 4 percent (while undergraduate continued to decline). In order to help institutions capitalize on these strengths, RNL worked with institutions, in both research and consultant capacities, and surfaced some interesting data surrounding graduate studies. First, a firm majority of graduate students now enroll in hybrid and online programs (Online 30 percent, Hybrid 30 percent). Second, roughly 50 percent of them are pursuing a master’s degree, about 15 percent a doctoral degree, and more than 30 percent a non-degree credential. Third, a firm majority also enroll in accelerated programs with shorter courses.

2. Many institutions and programs are centralizing graduate marketing and recruitment operations.

We also did research aimed at helping institutions “up their game” in marketing to graduate students. In the past, many graduate schools had decentralized marketing and recruitment operations. This drove collaboration, but made accountability difficult because so many people were involved in the process. More recently, many institutions are moving toward a centralized marketing and recruitment operation in order to tackle the accountability issue and elevate the sophistication of their strategies and tactics. The optimal position is likely in the middle—with input from schools and departments at key points in the process, and a centralized operation that can ensure that the very latest tactics are being employed. Either way you are organized, RNL’s national conference session on organizational structure can help you maximize efficiency.

3. Digital marketing will increasingly drive inquiries and conversion for graduate enrollment

Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Management has been an RNL client for several years, working with RNL to increase interest and enrollment in key graduate programs. We talked to them this year about what was working, and they shared how RNL’s digital marketing drove a huge increase in inquires and boosted their conversion rate by 128 percent.

Insights into Online Education

4. Program prioritization is critical to identifying which online programs to grow.

Few institutions have the ability to grow 10+ online enrollment programs at once. They need to identify where to focus their limited resources and have the greatest enrollment ROI. Joshua Kutney and Rachel Carlton of Lakeland University talked with us about how they worked with RNL to evaluate potential online program concepts and gain an in-depth understanding of which ones were most likely to be the optimal match between market demand and institutional strength.

5. Having a strategic enrollment planning process helped institutions manage the shifts of the pandemic.

The University of Tennessee Martin was ready for the pandemic in many ways that were linked to the Strategic Enrollment Planning process that it was underway in the early months of the pandemic. Part of the engagement with RNL included consulting to create and grow their online programs. Unlike many other institutions across the country, when the pandemic hit, there were structures in place that allowed them to make the rushed transition to remote learning a much easier process—and one that resulted in higher quality learning for their students.

6. More and more states are “exporting” students who are studying online.

Our analysis of NC-Sara’s Annual Data Report shows how many online students states are “importing” (meaning out-of-state students studying online with institutions in the importing state) and how many states are “exporting” students to online education in other states. Arizona, Utah, and New Hampshire were the three importing more than 100,00 students, while Texas and Florida were the largest exporters and the only to cross the 100,000 student mark in that category.

7. Many institutions are looking for ways to provide a world-class online learning experience without having to use an online program management (OPM) provider.

We also spent a lot of time in 2021 helping institutions figure out the best ways to launch and market online programs without having to settle on working with an OPM. OPMs can be difficult to work with, and the need for a shift to online formatting over the past three semesters has not made anything easier. In 2020, RNL documented that fewer than one-quarter of institutions are enthusiastic about working with an OPM, but for some it is seen as the only option. One of the main reasons that institutions are partnering with OPMs is to mitigate the risk associated with creating online programs, but this is only a short-term solution.

Through conversations with clients, conversations with thought leaders like Eddie Maloney and Josh Kim, and our own research we determined that the biggest problems that institutions face with their OPM are: 1) control of course content and delivery, 2) technological capacity, 3) effective marketing and recruitment, 4) good market research, and most importantly 5) transparency into what the OPM is doing and how they are doing it.

In light of all of these challenges, the solution seems to be an online program provider with radical transparency, that is designed to decrease dependency, facilitate the retaking of ownership over online programs, recruitment, and marketing. This will result in more revenue in a “pocket” of the institution and an organization that is more resilient as it faces the next major disruption.

The biggest thing we learned: The world of higher education is one that is subjected to constant change

This change could be in the demand of programs, the format that students expect in their classes, or even the constant challenges that institutions face on a daily basis. At RNL, we help institutions transition back to greater ownership by focusing on filling the gaps and overall needs that exist due to lack of experience, skill-sets, and/or staffing resources. We normally find that institutions can do more than they think when they have the right guidance. Rather than outsourcing everything, we help institutions strategically “up-source” where there are already capabilities, while outsourcing areas needing significant help—but with the intent to build institutional capabilities over time. Reach out to talk with us and we’ll discuss what you can do to engage more graduate and online students so you reach your enrollment goals in the coming year and beyond.

Talk with our graduate and online enrollment experts

Ask for a free consultation with us. We’ll help you assess your market and develop the optimal strategies for your prospective graduate students and online learners.

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About the Author

Jacob Davidson

Jacob Davidson is a Market Research Intern here at RNL. In this capacity he assists in market research studies, collaborates on data analysis for thought leadership, and develops content for newsletters and other resources. He...

Read more about Jacob's experience and expertise

Reach Jacob by e-mail at Jacob.Davidson@RuffaloNL.com.

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