Increasing Total Graduate Enrollment through Online Learning

Grant DeRoo

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The evolution of online education is as encouraging as it is exciting. Studied closely, its trajectory can help us understand the future of online learning and offer valuable insights on the continued overlap of technology and education. At Stamats, we’re frequently asked about the demand for online programs and how that demand may influence enrollment at a particular institution. While every school and situation is unique, it’s worthwhile to assess online learning from a broader perspective and get a sense for how an online offering affects enrollment holistically.

What the Data Show

To learn more, our team assessed graduate enrollment in master’s programs across all disciplines. Since schools of all types are more likely to develop online programs at the graduate level in order to accommodate working students, analyzing enrollment trends among graduate students offers the best insight.

We began with an assessment of total graduate enrollment with institutions segmented on the basis of a) whether or not the institution offers graduate programs online and b) when the institution began offering online programs. Results were compiled for all public and private nonprofit universities for 2012–2015 (the most recent years for which data were available).

The table below includes total graduate-student enrollment statistics for various segments of institutions.

At the broadest level, it’s clear that enrollment at institutions with online programs is greater than enrollment at institutions with only face-to-face graduate programs. Additionally, for institutions that offered online programs, graduate enrollment grew by 1.8 percent between 2012 and 2015. In contrast, graduate enrollment declined by 2.5 percent at schools that offered only face-to-face instruction.

The bottom six rows of the table show two sets of graduate-enrollment trends at three segments of schools. The three segments correspond to schools that began online graduate programs in 2013, 2014, or 2015. For each segment there are two rows displaying the following:

  1. Actual enrollment trends (i.e., total graduate enrollment in each year)
  2. Expected enrollment, which includes the forecasted level of enrollment if the institution continued to offer only face-to-face programs (calculated using a linear forecast based on enrollment in the previous three years)

To distinguish the two, actual enrollment is reported in standard font and expected enrollment numbers are italicized. Additionally, blue cells indicate years during which online graduate programs were offered, with the first blue cell marking the year when online options began.

The data are quite striking, as they reveal significant increases in enrollment in the years during and immediately after institutions began offering online programs. The findings are even more compelling when we compare actual enrollment trends with expected trends based on enrollment data in the years preceding the addition of online programs. Consider schools that began offering online programs in 2013. Based on graduate-enrollment trends in the three previous years (2010−2012), we would have expected total graduate enrollment among these schools to be 301,855 students (a decline from the previous year by 6,174 students). Instead, enrollment increased to 316,784 when the schools began offering online programs.

A similar trend occurs in 2014 and 2015 (albeit more modestly in 2014) with graduate enrollment increasing when trends suggested that enrollment would decline. This data are illustrated in the chart below. Note that solid lines indicate actual enrollment figures, while dotted lines indicate expected enrollment based on trends in the three years prior to the year when these schools began online programs.

Results seem to affirm a long-held belief about online education: online programs do not merely engage students who would otherwise be in face-to-face programs; they increase enrollment by making graduate programs accessible to those who would have otherwise not been able to enroll at all.

By taking a more granular look at the individual institutions launching online programs in these years, we can get a clearer picture of the number of students gained per program when a program is made available online. We can then use this calculated per-program student increase to estimate—across all graduate fields—the expected growth in total program enrollment during the first three years in which a graduate program is offered online.

The chart below includes the following three values for schools that began offering online graduate programs in 2013, 2014, or 2015:

  1. Total Gain in Enrollment above Expected Levels: The difference between actual enrollment and expected enrollment based on trends in preceding years
  2. Total New Online Programs: The number of online graduate programs offered by all institutions that began offering online options in that year
  3. Average Increase in Enrollment per Program: The average number of students gained per program above expected levels

    The data show that, on average, there is a considerable increase in graduate enrollment on a per-program basis when a program is offered online. This is to the benefit of both the institution (i.e., increased enrollment) and students because the increase suggests that students selected the program for the benefit of increased convenience. These students may have enrolled elsewhere or may have remained on the sidelines without a program that met their interests and needs. Thus, online learning is exciting not only for its potential to enhance education for students already served by the higher education system but also for its potential to open doors to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to access it.

    Whether your goal is to grow enrollment, assess program demand, revitalize your brand, or adjust tuition pricing, Stamats’ research team can deliver the data and insights you need to make informed strategic decisions. Every day we help institutions of all sizes use data to better understand the demands of the marketplace and develop more informed growth strategies. To learn more about our custom research services, please call me directly at 319-861-5144.

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