Inquiries for Online Programs Rose 4.8% for 2017, Signaling a ‘Shift in Interest,’ Gray Associates Reports

February 8, 2018

Interest in online academic programs continued to outpace on-campus offerings in 2017, according to an analysis of demand trends in higher education by Gray Associates, a strategy consulting firm specializing in higher education.  Inquiries for online programs rose 4.8 percent for 2017 while inquiries for on-campus programs fell by 14 percent.

Online Inquiries Source 2017600.png“Since 2012, post-secondary enrollment and completions in the US have hardly budged, growing less than 1% annually.  But, online programs have been the bright spot in higher education,” said Gray Founder and Chief Executive, Robert Atkins.  “This trend continued in 2017,  inquiries for online programs posted gains almost every month and rose almost 5% for the year.  In contrast, inquiries for on-campus programs were down every month last year. ”  Mr. Atkins spoke during the firm’s monthly webcast on the most recent Student and Employer Demand Trends in Higher Education, which he presented in late January.  

An inquiry is a request for information about an academic program or institution prior to submitting an application.  Gray collects data on programs of interest, location and preference for online or on-campus study for approximately 700,000 inquiries a month.  This information is one of over 40 metrics incorporated into Gray’s Program Evaluation System, which colleges and universities use to make strategic decisions on which programs to Start, Stop, Grow or Sustain at each of their campus locations and online.

Overall student demand for higher education (online and on-ground inquiry volumes combined) was down 10.1 percent for 2017.  However, the last three months saw below average decreases, which suggests the fall in demand could be easing.  The number of qualified student inquiries was down 6.7 percent year-over-year for December, seven percent for November and three percent for October.

The five largest markets – New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia – all had lower inquiry volume in 2017.  Houston had the biggest drop, 20 percent; Los Angeles had the smallest, seven percent.  However, the declines for 2017, on a percentage basis, were less than for 2016 in Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, but greater for New York and Philadelphia.  “Growth isn’t happening in the big cities right now, and it has not been for some time,” Mr. Atkins said.

Human Services was the fastest-growing program for 2017, with a 107 percent year-over-year increase in inquiry volume.  Rounding out the five fastest programs were:  Medical Insurance Coding, up 54 percent; Counseling – Psychology, up 43 percent; Health Sciences, up 37 percent, and Christian Studies, up 32 percent.

Much of the growth in interest in Christian Studies is coming from people 50 and older, Mr. Atkins noted.  “It’s a different demographic with a different purpose.  They are not coming to college for careers.  They are coming to college for a deeper understanding of themselves, of the world, and of the meaning of their lives.”

Mr. Atkins also presented two trends that higher education leaders need to address in 2018:  The growing gender gap in higher education and the dilution of institutional resources that results from having too many small programs.

Women now account for 60 percent of people graduating at all degree levels, which means there is a 20 point gap between men and women, he noted.  As a result, over the next four years one million fewer men than women will earn college degrees.

“We’re literally manufacturing an unskilled labor force by allowing a huge number of men to go out into the workplace without a college education,” Mr. Atkins said. “Unfortunately, that means their lifetime earnings are going to be very constrained.  As automation comes to lower skilled jobs, the challenge of staying employed will become greater and greater.”

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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,

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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