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Enrollment Challenges and How to Face Them

A typical question we are asked by clients – usually in hushed tones – is, “It’s not just us, right?” Everyone wants to understand if the declining enrollments in their bread-and-butter graduate programs are the product of a stormy sea, or a leaky boat. Let’s take a look first at the data on the sea, over which a particular institution has little control, before discussing our recommendations for what to do about your institutional boat.

Let’s start with the red line up above, the traditional (i.e., not online) Part-Time MBA market, as reported to U.S. News & World Report nationally. We have monitored this slope closely over the past five years, hoping that the relative leveling off of 2013-2015 was a sign of stabilization after about a 19% overall decline between 2009 and 2013. Unfortunately, 2016 showed that the slide may continue, and this market will continue to look like one where the players are fighting for existing market share, rather than one where the market size is growing for everyone again. (See our post regarding the online market from last year for information on where some of these enrollments are going instead.)

Full-time enrollments, however, were down about 10% in the few years leading up to 2015 (one cause of the well-publicized shuttering of full-time programs at some top institutions.) And while that line has curved up a bit in 2016 – a positive development to be sure – the pressure to improve performance in this category is growing and the expectation is that it will continue to get markedly worse before it gets better.

So, what do we recommend to our clients to set the best course on the seas ahead?

The vicious cycle

Most of the time when we encounter a client seeking to grow enrollments in these product categories in these declining markets, they are in a hurry to identify the culprit for their struggles – generally singling out one of the factors that may be contributing to their declines as the root cause. This hope for a panacea, without the proper data and analysis behind it, can lead to heightened internal expectations and misallocation of resources, which merely serves to ratchet up the pressure even more for the next recruitment cycle.

The most effective method for tackling this issue (both in terms of providing the information necessary to make decisions and convincing relevant stakeholders – like faculty and CFOs – that these are the right decisions) and developing an implementable enrollment growth strategy is to analyze each of the four pillars Eduvantis has defined that may be contributing to enrollment growth issues. In nearly all circumstances, “the culprit” is some combination of these elements, which must be recalibrated to optimize enrollment.

While this may seem daunting, especially when you need “butts in seats” tomorrow, our many clients will tell you that taking the time to do this work now will pay dividends in both the short- and long-terms. Not only will you have confidence that you are making the right decisions (plugging the leaks in your boat), but you will also set yourself up to have everyone on board rowing in the same direction, as we help you avoid the stormiest of seas.

If you have any questions about how to undertake this analysis, we would welcome talking with you. Having done this work at every type of institution you can think of (big, small, public, private, urban, rural), we have lots of tips and tricks that can make this work most streamlined and effective in your particular situation.