The top five undergraduate programs to launch online

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The top five undergraduate programs to launch online

69%

of respondents in a 2020 EAB survey said they would seek out a program that is mostly or completely online
of respondents in a 2020 EAB survey said they would seek out a program that is mostly or completely online

Co-authored by Chace Paulson

Even before COVID-19 forced classes online, we knew student demand for online bachelor’s degrees, coupled with a favorable competitive landscape, presented an opportunity for online program development and enrollment growth. Between the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years, online bachelor’s degree completions increased at a rate nearly 2,000% higher than in-person completions. And in the same period, student demand for online bachelor’s degrees grew 260% faster than the number of institutions offering them.

“I just don’t have enough time. Online learning would be a lot more convenient…And that’s a huge thing for me, being able to do things on my own whenever I can.”

Prospective student and respondent to EAB’s 2019 student survey

But we also know the market for four-year degree completions is concentrated at the top. This is especially true when it comes to completions among adult undergraduates, with the largest 20% of institutions capturing over 79% of completions from undergraduates 25 or older. For comparison, the largest 20 percent of institutions held only 73% of the market of undergraduates under the age of 25.

The market for four-year degree completions is concentrated at the top. This is especially true when it comes to completions among adult undergraduates, with the largest 20% of institutions capturing over 79% of completions from undergraduates 25 or older. For comparison, the largest 20 percent of institutions held only 73% of the market of undergraduates under the age of 25.

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

EAB analyzed all reported distance delivery completions for bachelor’s degree programs between the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years to evaluate student demand and to assess the competitive landscape for each of these majors. All students graduating from a 100% online program in the United States within that timeframe were counted.

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

First, we identified the 15 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 student demand

  • Computer and Information Sciences
  • Elementary Education and Teaching
  • Marketing/Marketing Management
  • Information Technology
  • Psychology
  • Business Administration and Management
  • Accounting
  • Registered Nursing
  • Speech Communication and Rhetoric
  • Criminal Justice/Safety Studies
  • Health Care Administration and Management
  • General Studies
  • Sociology
  • Business/Commerce
  • Finance

From there, we assessed the competitive landscape for each of the 15 majors. 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 new 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 the strongest opportunity for institutions to offer online:

  1. Health Care Administration and Management
  2. Accounting
  3. Criminal Justice/Safety Studies
  4. Business/Commerce
  5. Registered Nursing

In addition to high student demand, the number of competing online undergraduate programs in these areas grew slowly in recent years. And when ranked against all 15 of the programs we identified initially, these five programs held the smallest difference between the mean and median number of completions per institution, and the institutional leaders in the respective fields 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.

While national completions provide insight into demand for programs, regional employer demand for program graduates—as well as market concentration in your institution’s regional market—should also be considered.

Programs with highest student demand

  • Health Care Administration and Management
  • Accounting
  • Criminal Justice/Safety Studies
  • Business/Commerce
  • Registered Nursing
  • Computer and Information Sciences
  • Elementary Education and Teaching
  • Marketing/Marketing Management
  • Information Technology
  • Finance
  • Computer and Information Sciences
  • Marketing/Marketing Management
  • Business Administration and Management
  • Psychology
  • Speech Communication and Rhetoric
  • General Studies
  • Sociology

What about adult degree completers?

While the degree completions data we analyzed includes both traditional undergrads as well as adult degree completers—or students 25 or older reenrolled to earn an undergraduate degree—we wanted to take a closer look at the programs of greatest interest to adult degree completers in particular. That’s because, during the Great Recession, over 1.2 million adults 25 and up enrolled in undergraduate programs. And as our researchers uncovered, almost all of this recession-era increase came from adult degree completers. But despite the spike in enrollment among adult degree completers, many four-year public and private non-profit institutions failed to benefit, with more enrollments going to community colleges and for-profit institutions.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that when compared to all undergraduates, adult degree completers were more likely to earn bachelor’s degrees in business, management and liberal arts, and the humanities. Institutions interested in serving adult degree completers should prioritize the development of these programs online, given many degree completers’ preference for online education. Regardless of when campuses can reopen safely, student appetite for online bachelor’s degrees is here to stay.

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As economies and institutions around the world reel from the impact of COVID-19, enrollment leaders have sought to identify pockets of students they can recruit to offset grim projections for first-time, full-time undergraduate enrollment. Read this insight to learn about adult degree completers’ motivations, the obstacles they face in reenrollment, and their fears—and what they mean for your marketing and recruitment strategy.

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