The top 5 graduate programs to launch online


The top 5 graduate programs to launch online


Even before COVID-19 forced classes online, we knew mounting student demand for online programming presented a strong opportunity for online program development and enrollment growth. While prospective students’ interest in online graduate, professional, and adult programs varies by age, online master’s degree completions are on the rise, especially when compared to changes in in-person master’s degree completions. Between the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years, online master’s degrees completions increased an average of 7.39% annually, while in-person completions declined 2.22% on average. And in the same period, student demand for online master’s degrees grew 339% faster than the number of institutions offering them.


student demand for online master’s degrees grew 339% faster than the number of institutions offering them

But the online graduate market poses unique challenges. Our research shows online graduate programs are not only competing with schools in their own backyards, but also with national competitors. One out of every five online graduate students is enrolled at one of seven online mega-universities, suggesting strong national competition in online market.

As a result, schools eager to offer online graduate programs should prioritize developing programs with strong student demand but in fields with less market concentration. With these criteria in mind, our researchers took a look at which master’s degree programs have the highest potential for growth online. Here’s what we learned.

EAB analyzed all reported distance delivery completions for master’s degree programs between the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years to evaluate student demand and to assess the competitive landscape for each program. All students graduating from a completely online program in the United States within that time frame were included in this analysis.

Programs with strong increases in completions and few dominant competitors offer the best potential for growth

First, we identified 19 programs with the highest increases in student demand between the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years based on the number of reported distance delivery completions. Programs with the highest growth in completions range from nursing programs such as Family Practice Nursing and Nursing Administration to business programs like Business Administration and Management and Accounting.

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Programs with the highest student demand

  • Family Practice Nursing
  • Nursing Administration
  • Computer and Information Sciences
  • Computer and Information Systems Security/Information Assurance
  • Educational/Instructional Technology
  • Public Health
  • Health Care Administration and Management
  • Elementary Education and Teaching
  • Accounting
  • Human Resources Management/Personnel Administration
  • Registered Nursing
  • Business Administration and Management
  • Organizational Leadership
  • Curriculum and Instruction
  • Business/Commerce
  • Special Education and Teaching
  • Public Administration
  • Social Work
  • Educational Leadership and Administration

From there, we assessed the competitive landscape for each of these 19 programs. We looked at whether there were clear winners in these markets, with reported degree completions heavily concentrated at only a few institutions. We also determined whether there was significant growth in the number of competitors annually, risking growth in new programs outpacing student demand.

Based on their diffuse markets and slower competitor growth, we identified five programs which present a strong opportunity for institutions to offer online:

  1. Health Care Administration and Management
  2. Public Administration
  3. Educational/Instructional Technology
  4. Human Resources Management/Personnel Administration
  5. Public Health

In addition to high student demand, the number of competing online master’s programs in these areas grew slowly in recent years. And when ranked against all 19 of the programs we identified initially, these five programs held the smallest difference between the mean and median number of completions per institution. The institutional leaders in these fields also captured the lowest relative market share. This indicates a favorable competitive landscape with low market domination, where degree completions are not heavily concentrated at only a few institutions

Programs with the highest student demand

Favorable competitive landscape
Unfavorable competitive landscape
  • Health care administration and management
  • Public administration
  • Education/instructional technology
  • Human resources management/personnel administration
  • Public health
Existing market domination
  • Family practice nursing
  • Nursing administration
  • Computer and information sciences
  • Computer and information sustems
  • Security/information assurance
  • Elementary education and teaching
  • Registered nursing
  • Business/commerce
High competition
  • Accounting
  • Business administration and management
  • Organizational leadership
  • Curriculum and instruction
  • Business/commerce
  • Special education and teaching
  • Educational leadership and administration

Design graduate and adult programs to stand out in a crowded market

Hear EAB’s latest research on the state of the graduate market and best practices for developing competitive and marketable programs.

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