Google Searches Fall While Inquiries Rise, Muddling Higher Education Demand Outlook, Gray Associates Reports

July 10, 2018

Has demand for higher education finally turned the corner or is it continuing to decline?  The answer is not immediately clear, because two key data sets used to measure demand are at odds, reports Gray Associates, a Massachusetts-based strategy consulting firm focused on higher education.

While Google search volume fell, year-over-year, for May, inquiry volume was higher.  Inquiries are requests for information about specific programs that are compiled by online aggregators and marketing agencies.  A segment of these inquiries are sold to colleges and universities as qualified leads.

Both are indicators of current demand by location, but they have different functions.  Google search volume indicates overall market interest by program; Inquiry volume data is used to assess demand for specific programs and award levels.  Gray also incorporates IPEDS completion data, which is reported annually, as a lagging indicator of student demand.

Inquiry volume had been dropping for several years, noted Gray Founder and CEO Robert Atkins.  However, it was higher or flat for four of the first five months of 2018.

“The decline in inquiries seems to be slowing, but, unfortunately, the decline in Google searches is not,” said Mr. Atkins.  “We have a little bit of disparity in trends between the two data sources, which would suggest that, while the trend may be less bad than it used to be, it would be premature to be optimistic that we are going to start growing.”

Gray has been tracking inquiries since 2012 and Google searches since 2016.  We reported a four percent year-over-year increase in inquiry volume for May, following a one percent rise for April, but a seven percent drop for March.

Google search volume for programs of instruction was down three percent (see chart below), year-over-year, in May while brand searches fell six percent.  Both program searches and brand searches for the first five months of 2018 are five percent below 2017.  Gray tracks search volume for the 200 largest higher education programs and for a sample of 75 higher education brands.
Google Searches for Higher Education Programs copy

The growth in inquiry volume is concentrated in the online program sector, which had a seven percent gain for May and was up for four of the first five months of the year.  Inquiries for on-campus programs dropped 12 percent year-over-year in May and were down for all of 2018 to date.

On-campus “is a beleaguered sector and, honestly, I don’t see any end in sight,” Mr. Atkins said.  “The traditional on-campus student, fresh out of high school looking for a place to go to college, is a dwindling share of the overall market.  The growth is coming from adult learners, and, of course, adult learners have jobs.  As a result, they are less interested and less able to get to a campus for their studies.”

The five programs with the fastest-growing inquiry volume saw gains of at least 90 percent for May.  Public Administration was up 900 percent; Medical Records Technician 139 percent; Pharmacy Technician 103 percent; Computer Programming 98 percent, and Healthcare Administration 91 percent.

The six fastest-growing Google program searches for April all were certificate programs requiring two years of study or less: Aesthetician/Esthetician and Skin Care Specialist, up 37 percent; Nail Technician/Specialist and Manicurist, up 26 percent; Medical Radiologic Technology/Science, up 26 percent; Truck and Bus Driver/Commercial Vehicle Operator and Instructor, up 23%; HVAC, up 17 percent, and Surgical Technology/Technologist, up 17 percent.

The five programs with the biggest declines in Google search volume for April were: Hotel/Motel Administration/Management, down 68 percent; Education, General, down 46 percent; Administrative Assistant and Secretarial Science, General, down 45 percent; Hospitality Administration/Management, General, down 43 percent, and Criminal Justice/Safety Studies, down 36 percent.

The most recent student and employer demand trends are available here:

About Gray Associates

Gray Associates, Inc. is a higher education consulting firm.  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:
Mark Keleher, 617-366-2831,

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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