Using Market Penetration Strategies to Grow Graduate Enrollment

Holly TapperVice President, Graduate and Online SolutionsJune 23, 2021

Sometimes top business growth strategies can be used outside traditional business arenas: for example, a nonprofit college may decide to engage in programmatic growth by borrowing a common business strategy. This can be tricky, as schools look to merge programs with nearby colleges or by joining cooperatives. And reigning in expenses or controlling ROI may be a challenge when you relinquish programmatic or admissions control to a partnering institution. A “merger” strategy has accreditation red tape, too, and is not likely to serve as a quick enrollment growth solution.

Institutions often look at developing new programs/products as a growth strategy for graduate enrollment. This increases the control factor but is rarely a quick way to grow enrollment. Approval times for new programs can be lengthy, with internal faculty, academic leadership, and curriculum committee approvals required before the accreditor delivers the seal of approval so the institution can begin enrolling students.

This season at RNL we are seeing more and more universities developing market penetration initiatives to fuel growth in existing graduate programs. Institutions are expanding their enrollment efforts with nontraditional college students—adults, online learners, grad students. (See our 2020 Marketing and Recruitment Practices for Graduate Students Report, published by RNL with research partner NAGAP). And across the country, master’s and doctoral programs in law, medicine, business, health care, and mental health showed significant enrollment increases.

Market Penetration for Graduate Enrollment

Why are institutions focusing on graduate enrollment growth?

At the start of the pandemic, undergraduate enrollment declined by about 3 percent nationwide, while graduate enrollment increased by 3 percent. The undergraduate decline was even steeper for first-time college students—with enrollment declining by 16 percent. This led to tight budgets and colleges looking to cut costs and bring in revenue quickly.

These schools are choosing to grow graduate programs as their primary strategy. As universities look to increase their market share, they are bundling programs and courses differently, using alternative channels/modalities for course delivery and improving advertising to boost their reach. A spring 2021 RNL survey of 277 leaders in enrollment, marketing, and academics revealed that 89 percent were focusing on growing online graduate enrollment, 56 percent were planning to grow their existing on-campus grad programs, and 44 percent were looking for growth in professional education and certificates.

I had a conversation with Travis Lindahl, director of graduate and professional enrollment at Mercyhurst University, and we discussed his school’s goals of growing graduate enrollment by 2023 through a focus of leveraging existing programs. He identified key programs that were academically strong, matched with labor trends, and had internal capacity for growth. Using data to drive decisions, Mercyhurst knew that improving speed to lead, cost per lead, and conversion would be the key to capturing more prospective students. They enhanced their digital lead generation strategies to target just the right audience, and then added personalized videos to immediately deploy to those who completed the RFI forms. (See our session descriptions for the RNL National Conference to learn more about the Mercyhurst experience in the session, “Leveraging Existing Programs to Grow Enrollment.”)

Find the right strategies to spur graduate enrollment growth

If your college is exploring strategic ways to drive enrollment in graduate programming, consider these key business strategies:

  • market penetration
  • alternative channels
  • new product expansion
  • partnerships

Understanding the timeframe, span of control, likelihood of success, and necessary ROI will be important in your decision making. Reach out to our RNL graduate enrollment experts, and we’ll set up a time to discuss which strategies could work best for your institution.

And don’t forget to attend the virtual RNL National Conference on July 7-8 to engage with other university leaders and learn from industry experts proven growth strategies from their schools and the metrics that are the keys to success.

Catch the graduate and online enrollment tracks at the RNLNC 2021

Join us July 7-8 for the RNL National Conference, held virtually against the backdrop of Paris. This year’s event will feature sessions on key topics in graduate and online enrollment, including:

  • Competing successfully for graduate students
  • Creating a world-class online experience
  • Filling the funnel with the right leads
  • Leveraging existing programs to grow enrollment

Learn more and register

RNL National Conference 2021

About the Author

Holly Tapper

Holly Tapper offers a strong background as a university administrator leading successful graduate programs, with extensive experience in online learning for nearly 15 years. Prior to coming to RNL, she was director of online operations at...

Read more about Holly's experience and expertise

Reach Holly by e-mail at Holly.Tapper@RuffaloNL.com.

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