Inquiry Volume for Online Programs Fell 11 Percent for July, Gray Associates Reports; Drop is First Since June 2016

In July, student demand for online programs continued to grow, but the growth story became more complex.  Inquiries1 for online programs fell in July, but the number of inquiries that converted to applications or starts rose, reports Gray Associates, a higher education consulting firm.  This data suggests that college marketers are generating fewer inquiries, but the inquiries are higher quality than they used to be.  It is also true that July 2016 inquiries were unusually high, and the drop this year may just be a return to normal levels for the month.  Robert Atkins, CEO of Gray Associates, presented these findings on August 24th in Gray’s monthly webcast on trends in student and employer demand.

Student Demand for Online Education.png

More specifically, for the first time in more than a year, July 2017 inquiry volume for online higher education programs declined 11%.  Total national inquiry volume, which includes on-campus programs as well as online, also dropped 11 percent.   

While inquiry volume continued its multi-year decline, the conversion rate2 has been trending higher.  For the second quarter of 2017, conversions were trending 15 percent higher, indexed to 2014.  Conversions for online programs rose 63 percent for April 2017 while conversions for on-campus programs fell 20 percent.

Google search volume, a student demand metric that includes online and on-ground programs, rose nine percent in July.  “There are several possible reasons for the rise in Google searches,” Mr. Atkins said.  “More students, particularly adult students, may be searching online for degrees.  In addition, people may be considering more programs before deciding where to apply.”

Gray tracks Google search volume for 5,000 keywords, 25 for each of 200 IPEDS CIP (programs of instruction) and 70 higher-education brands.  Of the five largest programs in this sample, three academic programs registered year-over-year Google search volume gains for July while two had declines:

  • Business Administration and Management, General, up 24 percent.
  • Nursing Assistant/Aide and Patient Care Assistant/Aide, down six percent.
  • Cosmetology/Cosmetologist, General, up 27 percent.
  • Registered Nursing/Registered Nurse, up eight percent.
  • Medical/Clinical Assistant, down four percent.

The most expensive keywords for July were for healthcare management and psychology, with weighted average costs per click of $50.60 and $48.96, respectively.  Five other programs had weighted average costs per click above $30:  Family Practice Nurse/Nursing, $33.76; Social Work, $32.82; Medical Insurance Coding Specialist/Coder, $31.54; Public Administration, $31.49, and Business Administration and Management, General, $30.58.  The most searched keywords were medical assistant and “masage” [SIC] therapy.

Other reported trends were:

  • The average price per inquiry (PPI) paid by institutions in July 2017 was $45.30, two percent higher than July 2016.  While below the $45.80 for June 2017, the average PPI has remained above $45 throughout 2017.
  • Medical/Clinical Assistant had the largest budget for inquiries in July, followed by Business Administration and Management and Medical Office Assistant/Specialist.
  • The July 2017 inquiry budget for Medical/Clinical Assistant was 15 percent lower, year-over-year.  Spending on inquiries rose for Medical Insurance Coding Specialist/Coder, Psychology, General, Health/Healthcare Administration/Management and Business Administration and Management (associate degree).
  • The top five programs for inquiry volume growth in July were:  Motor Cycle Maintenance and Repair, up 134 percent; Electrician, up 103 percent; Electronics Engineering, up 102 percent; Human Services, General, up 84 percent, and Accounting and Finance, up 56 percent.
  • The five programs with the largest declines in inquiry volume were:  Electrical and Communications Technology, down 70 percent; Curriculum and Instruction, 62 percent lower; Accounting and Business/Management, off 61 percent; Animation, Interactive Technology, Video Graphics and Special Effects, down 39 percent, and Management Information Systems, General, 37 percent lower.

Download the full report 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. Inquiries are made by students directly on school websites (about 30% of Gray’s data) and on websites run by third party marketers (aggregators) who sell these inquiries to colleges. 

2. Gray counts conversions by the month the inquiry was received.  It can take as long as six months for the conversion rate to fully mature because prospective students are taking longer to make decisions.

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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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