Demand for Higher Education Rises: Gray Associates

February 1, 2019

December Inquiry Volume Rose 9% Year-Over-Year; 1.8% Higher for All of 2018

In December 2018, student demand for higher education programs rose sharply, according to Gray Associates, a higher education strategy consulting firm.  The firm reported inquiry volume rose nine percent from December 2017 while Google searches for specific programs increased eight percent.  Growth was particularly strong for online programs.  Gray is optimistic that rising interest will lead to enrollment growth in 2019.

“This is one of the strongest upticks we have ever seen,” Mr. Atkins said. “The whole story is much, much better than it had been as recently as a year ago.  At a minimum, it suggests the decline in higher education demand has slowed and may have even turned around.”

Online programs drove the inquiry volume gains.  Inquiries for online programs were nine percent higher in December, while inquiries for on-ground programs fell 8.3 percent.  However, these numbers might be skewed since students making inquiries about specific programs are more likely to be adult learners who do not have time to come to campus for classes, Mr. Atkins noted.

Inquiries from the five largest cities – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia – have also turned around.  A year ago, all five reported drops ranging between eight and 17 percent. This year, four of the five, reported higher volume:  Houston, up 22 percent; Chicago, up 17 percent; Los Angeles, up 15 percent, and New York, up four percent. In Philadelphia, inquiry volume fell six percent, however, that was 11 points better than December 2017.

While most of the findings were positive, cause for caution remains.  There was a sharp decline in interest seen for one of the largest programs in the country, Medical Assistant, which had a 14 percent dip in inquiries.  “Interest in Medical Assistant programs has been dropping by double digits in our inquiry volume database for the past three to four years,” Mr. Atkins added.  “Completions have fallen by 40 percent from their peak a few years ago and they are continuing to decline, according to our data.”

Further, Google searches for higher education brands fell eight percent for December and were 4.4 percent lower for all of 2018.  Also, In September, conversions of September inquiries into applications or starts were six percent lower than in 2017.

“This decline in conversions seems to be ending.”  Mr. Atkins added, “Conversions of October and November inquiries have already surpassed 2017 levels.  That is very good news because an inquiry is one thing but until it converts it has no value.”

Mental Health Counseling/Counselor led all 1,400 IPEDS programs for inquiry volume growth in December with a 140 percent increase.  The market for the program, which Mr. Atkins covered in detail as Gray’s program of the month, is characterized by strong student demand, moderate competition and strong job growth.  However, salaries tend to be low for a field in which the majority of workers hold master’s degrees.

“It is not an attractive field if you are interested in making money,” he said, adding that many people who enter the profession are motivated by helping people instead of money.  However, he warned that repaying student loans could be challenging at current salary levels.

View Gray’s January 2019 webinar on student and employer demand trends
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An inquiry is a prospective student’s request for information about an academic program or institution.  It is often the first step in the application process. Gray tracks inquiry volume as part of its Program Evaluation System, which colleges and universities use to make decisions about which programs to Start, Stop, Sustain or Grow.

About Gray Associates

Gray Associates, Inc. is a strategy consulting firm focused on higher education.  We help clients develop fact-based institutional and marketing strategies to maximize outcomes for students, the school, and its constituencies.  Gray uses proprietary analytical techniques and an industry-leading database combining information on inquiry volumes, demographics, competition, and employment, to help faculty and school leadership develop institutional strategies, select programs, pick locations, and prepare curricula.

Media contact:
Ellis Simon, 516-524-6804,

Company contact:
Jeff Chin, 617-877-2562,

Gray Associates

Gray Associates, Inc. provides the best available data, software, and facilitated processes to help higher education institutions make high-stakes decisions regarding academic programs, pricing, and locations.

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Gray Associates, Inc. is a software and services firm focused on higher education. We help education clients develop fact-based institutional and marketing strategies that maximize outcomes for students, the school, and its constituencies.

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