GrayReports:  Demand for Online Programs Continues to Flourish

July 12, 2017

A “flight to quality” appears to be emerging in the higher education marketplace, with institutions becoming more reliant upon their own websites and marketing initiatives to attract prospective students, according to Gray Reports, a monthly review of demand trends compiled by Gray Associates, a higher education strategy consulting firm.

While external inquiries, i.e. generated by third-party web sites, were off 10 percent in May, a level consistent with the rest of 2017, branded inquiries, which search for a specific school, experienced a smaller drop, just seven percent.  Currently, branded inquiries account for around one-third of all leads but that share could rise if trends continue.

“If branded inquiries become more prevalent, awareness and preference for an institution’s brand will increase in importance,” said Gray CEO, Robert Atkins.  “Since most institutions do not have the budget to support brand marketing, this trend may favor bigger schools with stronger brands and more ability to fund brand marketing and schools with well-defined niches in which they are well-known and well-regarded.”

Student inquiry volume is a harbinger of application trends as well as a data point used for program portfolio assessment and strategy.  Overall inquiries were down just 2.9 percent year-over-year for May, the smallest decline since November 2016.  However, it is “too early to tell whether this is a blip or a trend,” Mr. Atkins noted.

On a brighter note, inquiry volume for online programs continued to grow in May, marking the tenth month in the last 11 to show gains.  Inquiries for online programs were up 10 percent year-over-year.

Inquiries for on-campus programs were five percent lower.  Over the past two years the gap in inquiry volume between online and on-campus programs has narrowed significantly.  If current trends continue, inquiries for online programs could soon overtake those for on-campus programs, Mr. Atkins pointed out.

Despite the overall decline in volume, inquiries appear to be coming from more motivated prospective students.  The conversion rate1 for first quarter of 2017, the number of students submitting an application after inquiring about a program or school, ran at near-2016 levels and eight percent ahead of 2014.

February 2017, the most recent mature month for conversation, had a nine percent decline year-over-year.  However, March conversions, which have not yet matured, were running ahead of the same month a year earlier.

In addition to receiving fewer inquiries, institutions are paying more for the ones they get though they are converting at higher rates.  The average price per inquiry (PPI) from external sources was $44.14 in May, nine percent higher than a year earlier, however this was the lowest PPI to date for 2017.

Inquiry volume for all five of the largest IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) programs fell by double digits in May.  Registered Nursing was down 19 percent; Medical Assistant down 21 percent, Criminal Justice 21 percent lower, Business Administration, Bachelor’s degree, off 38 percent, and Business Administration, Associate’s Degree lower by 42 percent.

The five fastest-growing programs for May were:  Medical Insurance Coding, up 243 percent; Cosmetology, up 104 percent; Construction Management, up 56 percent; Electrician, up 42 percent, and Welding Technician, up 41 percent.  The programs with the largest drops in inquiry volume were: Computer and Information Sciences, down 88 percent; Electrical Engineering Technician, down 82 percent; Cyber Security, down 72 percent; Curriculum & Instruction, down 66 percent, and Counseling and Psychology, down 47 percent.  These rapid shifts in demand may be the result of fundamental growth or decline in student demand; however, they can also be caused by changes in competitive marketing and the recent spate of school closures.

By degree level, inquiry volume for post-master’s certificates and associate’s degrees rose 90 percent and 17 percent year-over-year, respectively, March through May.  However, inquiry volume for bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees saw double-digit drops.

The full report can be viewed 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,

1 Conversions are counted in the month an inquiry is received.  The conversion cycle now stretches for five – six months.

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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