Largest Academic Programs Generate Nearly Half of Completions, Gray Associates Analysis Shows

March 2, 2018

Having too many small programs ‘cannibalizes’ bigger programs, says Gray Founder and CEO Robert Atkins   

When it comes to academic productivity, size matters.

Half of all higher-education completions come from just six percent of the programs offered in the US.  According to an analysis of IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data conducted by Gray Associates, there are thousands of programs offered by higher education institutions, but only a few with over 99 completions per year.  

Nationally, these large programs comprise six percent of higher education programs but account for 45 percent of all graduates (see chart below).  At the other end, 48 percent of academic programs generate fewer than 10 completions per year; these smaller programs produce just 7 percent of completions.

National Program Productivity Final2.png

Many institutions tout the number of programs they offer as a messaging point for recruitment.  However, the strategy could be backfiring.  “Having too many small programs cannibalizes other programs,” said Robert Atkins, founder and CEO of Gray, during the firm’s monthly webinar on demand trends held February 22.  “They are not bringing in incremental students.  They are just shifting students from one program to another.”

Institutions should focus on starting or expanding larger programs that can attract students and have a positive financial impact, Mr. Atkins added.  “The key is picking the right programs.”  Gray’s Program Evaluation System (PES) is used by colleges and universities to identify programs to Start, Stop, Sustain, or Grow.  It incorporates 40 points of data into a scoring rubric that measures student demand, employment outlook, competition, and strategic fit.

He cited Western Governors University (WGU), an online-only institution owned by a consortium of public institutions in western states, to illustrate his point.  It has grown from 8,735 students for the 2005 – 2006 academic year to 101,229 for 2015 – 2016, achieving a 28 percent annual growth rate.  Its number of completions has risen from 2,271 in 2010 to 16,444 in 2016, a 39 percent annual growth rate.

More than half of WGU’s programs produce more than 99 completions a year.  Those programs account for 92 percent of its completions (see chart below).  The remainder of its programs are largely in the growth stage and are expected to produce more graduates in coming years.

WGU Program Productivity Final.png

“Western Governors has grown dramatically with a handful of programs, and they are all offered only online,” said Mr. Atkins.  He called program productivity an opportunity for colleges and universities since a successful, large program could add hundreds of new students to a school’s enrollment.

During the presentation, Mr. Atkins presented data on a fast-growing program that has been getting much attention recently – Cybersecurity.  Well-publicized hacking incidents, such as the Equifax data breach, have helped to raise student interest as well as employer demand.

Student demand is strong.  Cybersecurity ranks in the 95th percentile for inquiry volume and the 90th percentile for Google searches.  However, competition is strong, as well, with 404 institutions offering programs.  That figure is 74 fewer than 2016, largely due to the closing of ITT Technical Institute, which had 94 programs, Mr. Atkins noted.

Job postings in the field were up 39 percent year-over-year in 2017, increasing from 138,509 to 192,474, according to Burning Glass Technologies data.  The field pays well, with a mean annual salary of $100,000 and a median of $102,000.  More than 80 percent of postings that listed an education requirement called for a bachelor’s degree.

University of Maryland’s University College is the leading producer of degrees in Cybersecurity.  It awarded 577 Master’s degrees and 474 Bachelor’s degrees in 2016.  Other leading producers are Western Governors University, which awarded 246 Master’s degrees and 406 Bachelor’s degrees, and University of Phoenix – Arizona, which awarded 298 Bachelor’s degrees and 230 certificates.

Download the full report or watch the monthly webcast 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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