Uncovering Opportunities for Graduate and Online Enrollment Growth

Scott Jeffe

Vice President, Research (Graduate and Online)

July 30, 2020

For more than 20 years, RNL consultants have conducted Opportunity Assessments, two-day campus assessments where the RNL consultant analyzes an institution’s goals, challenges, and current enrollment to identify opportunities for growth. These assessments also bring together key stakeholders to discuss the findings and build a consensus for action (meetings that have been done virtually in recent months).

In recent years, many colleges and universities have reached out to ask where those opportunities are for online and graduate enrollment growth. Among the reasons for this expansion has been the clear realization that campuses must diversify their revenue streams as the traditional audience ebbs and flows.

Rob Baird leads the RNL team that conducts the assessments, a group that has conducted more than 1,000 assessments with institutions across the United States. As you can imagine, they have seen nearly every enrollment challenge imaginable. But now, as they meet with institutions that are both increasingly interested in graduate enrollment and especially interested in online enrollment management, Rob and his team have a wealth of new resources to draw on: the expanded online and graduate capabilities RNL has thanks to its acquisition of Converge Consulting, along with the digital agency capabilities of Converge. In this 4-minute video, he explains the key areas we cover in these assessments for online and graduate enrollment.


Rob has been delivering these video assessments to institutions, and he recently said something that I have believed for years: institutions cannot exclusively focus on undergraduates, or just dabble in the online and graduate space, and thrive in today’s economy. Among the reasons for this are that over the last five years online and graduate enrollment have grown (albeit more incrementally than originally projected) while undergraduate enrollment has declined each year (National Student Clearinghouse recorded 2.3 percent decline in 2017, 4.3 percent in 2018, and 1.4 percent in 2019).

When Rob or one of our colleagues visits a campus, he said that among their axiomatic points is that institutions cannot simply take undergraduate strategies, structure, and resources and apply them to the online and graduate enrollment areas with any hope of being successful. Institutions need to build unique strategies and processes that respond to the demands of these segments of the market. With that in mind, RNL set out to understand these demands and needs.

Understanding what students want

Rob indicated that one part of building that deeper understanding was to visit as many campuses and talk to ask many stakeholders as possible, but another—and more important step—was to get a firm understand of these students as well. This allows Rob and the team to assess institutional readiness to expand graduate and online enrollment with a firm foundation in experience and hard data on what drives enrollment decisions among these students.

The RNL 2019 National Student Satisfaction and Priorities Report presents data from more than 40,000 graduate and online students and answers questions like: “Why did you pick the school that you picked? Why are you there? What were the main reasons that you enrolled at this institution?”

What graduate students want

When we asked graduate students what the most important factors were in their enrollment decision, the top three reasons were:

  • academic reputation
  • future employment opportunities
  • cost of tuition.

These three factors represent to “golden trifecta” of the graduate market, and the fact that upwards of 70 percent rated all three as being important implies that institutions need to ensure that these three things reinforce each other. For much of this audience, academic reputation is much more about being able to advance their career effectively after graduation than about world-renowned faculty. And the cost factor doesn’t imply that they are looking for the lowest priced institution, but one that through quality, job prospects, and convenience and flexibility makes the cost worth it.

What online students want

For online students, the top three factors in their enrollment decision were:

  • convenience
  • work schedule
  • flexible pacing

This again represents an important trifecta of that successful institutions have to address cumulatively in order to attract students.

Of less importance (and yet still rated as important by more than 80 percent of online students) are program requirements, cost, and reputation. These are more in line with the graduate market, implying that they are important, but not as important as the convenience and flexibility factors.

Most online students are selecting that modality because it’s the only one that works for them as they juggle their work and other life responsibilities. This calls for completely different thinking among institutional leadership, and reinforces the notion that we cannot take undergraduate traditional methodologies and apply them to our online (or graduate) learners.

Key differences in graduate and online enrollment management compared to undergraduate

Graduate and online recruitment may best demonstrate the need for different strategies. While undergraduate recruitment can be driven by the purchase of lists of prospective students, there is no equally effective resource for graduate or online students. This requires institutions think of very different—and much more complex ways of generating leads. This explains the origins and importance of digital lead generation services. Without a list as a starting point, you have to create the lead, which can then lead to the inquiry, the application, the acceptance and

Another difference is in the “speed” factor in graduate and online communications and follow up practices. Unlike traditional undergraduates, upwards of 60 percent of graduate and online students enroll at the first school that responds to their initial inquiry. This necessitates a complete re-think of cultivation and communications strategies. While undergraduates may appreciate quick follow up, if you are among their top choices you will stay on their list. With graduate and online students, if you don’t follow up with meaningful and obviously personalized communication, they are likely to go with their next choice.

Finally, another very important difference between traditional undergraduate and graduate/online students is their enhanced consumer mentality. While undergraduates are often focused on the school, the vast majority of graduate and online students are primarily focused on the program. This makes the advertising of specific programs more important than the advertising of the brand. This is an indicator of a consumer approach to selecting an institution, and as such there is significantly more demand for personalized engagement.

Take advantage of the Opportunities Analysis for your online and graduate enrollment

RNL Opportunity Assessments are built around a virtual or in-person campus visit by Rob or one of his colleagues. Prior to the visit, RNL will prepare some research on you and your region, as well as a draft agenda that we will then customize to your priorities.

Over two days, the RNL consultant conducts a highly customized in-depth assessment of your online and graduate programs. We meet with all your leadership and stakeholders, setting aside a lot of time for discovery, and focus our discussions on your strategies, your structure, and your resources.

The visit closes with a review of a list of observations, recommendations and things that we think that you could do to help, achieve the online and graduate goals that you’re trying to accomplish. Rob reiterates that the depth and breadth of discussions is vital because we want to arrive at a set of findings and recommendations that are customized to your situation and circumstances. I encourage you to talk with his team and see how you can uncover new opportunities for online and graduate enrollment.

About the Author

Scott Jeffe, RNL

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

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