Institutions Must Invest in Excellence to Sustain Enrollment in Face of Weak Student Demand, Gray Associates Reports

April 25, 2018

Inquiry and Google Search Volume Decline for March 2018, Pointing to Lower Demand 

Colleges and universities must invest in “academic excellence” if they want to withstand declining student demand and sustain – or grow – their enrollment.  “Growth without academic excellence is not only difficult, it may be impossible,” Robert Atkins, CEO of Gray Associates, a higher education consulting firm, told participants in the firm’s most recent monthly webcast on demand trends in higher education, held Thursday, April 20.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), between 2010 and 2016 college enrollment dropped from 21.6 million to 20.2 million, a 6.5 percent decline.  This has led many institutions to cut expenses and, in some cases, lay off faculty and/or staff.  More than 400 colleges and universities, mostly in the for-profit sector, closed last year.  Other schools have attempted to wrest market share from the competition by increasing advertising budgets.

However, cost cutting and advertising are not sufficient to turn around struggling institutions.  “You need to make a sustained investment in the quality of the education you provide, which, in turn, will help you attract students at a lower cost than brute force marketing,” Mr. Atkins said, adding that schools need to make their programs better and differentiate them in an increasingly competitive market.

To a large degree, their success will depend on the quality of data they use to make decisions about programs and markets.  “You will need the best radar to find those spots where growth is possible,” he pointed out.

Both Gray’s inquiry volume data and Google search volume data for March point to continuing declines in demand.  Inquiry volumes were down six percent, year-over-year, while Google search volume was 11 percent lower.

National Google Searches1

Until recently, increased conversions – actions that move a prospective student beyond the inquiry stage – had been offsetting the decline in inquiries.  That is no longer the case.  While conversions for the third quarter of 2017 were 51 percent ahead of Gray’s baseline period, the first quarter of 2014, the conversion rate fell back to 25 percent above the baseline for the fourth quarter of 2017.

“We’re seeing some sort of change in conversions of inquiries that is not healthy,” said Mr. Atkins.  Conversion rates are likely to be flat for the first quarter of 2018, he added.

Other findings presented at the webcast include:

  • Two of the five largest programs had increased inquiry volume for March:  Healthcare Administration, up 37 percent, and Criminal Justice, up one percent.  Declines were reported for Registered Nursing, down two percent, Business Administration, nine percent lower, and Medical Assistant, 22 percent lower.
  • The five programs with the biggest increases in inquiry volume for March were:  Electrical Engineering, up 200 percent, Management Science, up 115 percent, Public Administration, 75 percent higher, Cybersecurity, gaining 72 percent, and Game/Media Design, 52 percent higher.

The full presentation 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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