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3 challenges you’ll face developing new online programs—and how to meet them

Growth in the graduate market is all online – here’s how to capitalize on it

April 26, 2021

It’s no surprise that enrollment leaders have doubled down on growing graduate and adult learner programs amid declines in undergraduate enrollment. Our researchers have found that the growth in graduate enrollments is actually happening in the online market. Enrollment in online graduate programs (including both master’s and professional doctoral programs) grew an average of 6.6% per year from 2013 to 2018, compared to a yearly average 1.8 percent decline in face-to-face graduate enrollment during this period.

Online programs represent a substantial and fast-growing share of the graduate market

Graduate enrollments by modality, Fall 2018

  • 60%

    Exclusively Face-To-Face

  • 31%

    Exclusively Online

  • 9%

    Mixed Online And On-Campus Enrollments

5-year growth trends

Online programs
  • +6.6%

    Average annual growth for online programs

  • +258K

    Total increase in graduate students in online programs

Face-to-face programs
  • -1.8%

    Average annual decline in face-to-face programs

  • -179K

    Total decrease in graduate students in face-to-face programs

And the growth in online enrollment doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon. EAB’s recent survey with NAGAP found 62% of surveyed enrollment leaders expanded fully online courses and programs in light of COVID-19, and 47% plan to do so in the future.

But developing online programs comes with a variety of internal and external challenges—challenges I experienced first-hand in my former role as a business school dean tasked with moving face-to-face programs online. Here are a few of the hurdles academic leaders often encounter when launching online programs and strategies you can use to improve your online programs and the program development process.


Select the right programs to offer online

When I was a dean, faculty members often raised ideas for new programs based on anecdotal interest from students, news articles, or conversations with peers. But the competitive and expensive nature of developing online programs means schools need to be especially rigorous in their program validation process.

When identifying the right programs to launch online, analyze:

  1. Labor market data

    Assess both structural labor market demand data – such as employment projects from the Bureau of Labor Statistics – and real-time job postings data from sources such as Emsi. When reviewing labor market demand data, consider whether employer demand is apparent in your target markets. This data can later be incorporated into your marketing materials to help illustrate the job opportunities available to graduates of your program.

  2. Student demand data (but be mindful of its limitations)

    Student interest does not always translate into enrollments and is often not useful in identifying new or emerging markets. As you consider student demand data, make sure to think about whether student interest is evident in your target geographic market and whether it supports interest in an online program specifically. And consider if economic or public policy changes could impact student demand for your program.

  3. Regional and national competitor programs

    When launching online programs, schools have to compete not only with a nearby institution with strong regional brand recognition but with online mega-universities (think Southern New Hampshire or University of Phoenix) able to recruit students from all corners of the country. Identify the features that set your program apart from institutions competing with you locally and nationally.

As you’re conducting these analyses, I’ve found it can also be helpful to give your marketing team a seat the table. For example, a marketing leader at one of our partner institutions recently shared that her team asks questions of program directors prior to launch such as “Is there a market need for this program from our institution specifically?” and “What do we offer that’s different from what’s already in the market, and why will students choose us?” These questions help ensure all stakeholders are thinking critically about a program’s competitive advantage and marketing positioning early on.


Achieve faculty buy-in

Since the start of the pandemic, many of our Adult Learner Recruitment partners have told me that they encounter fewer faculty who are opposed to online teaching and learning. But some faculty are understandably nervous about teaching online. Their concerns range from increased workload (especially upfront), limited familiarity with the tech required to teach online, and declines in program quality or student experience.


In my experience, it’s critical to listen to and validate instructors’ concerns about online learning – and to be open to restructuring a program or offering additional technical support based on their feedback. In addition to ensuring faculty have access to training pedagogical and technical training they need to teach online, make sure they know they have an advocate in conversations about online programs.


You can’t just ride on the coattails of your school’s brand…You have to convince your faculty that you are going to design and build online programs with the same quality you always insist on.


Online Enrollment Leader

EAB Partner Institution

Consider joining a faculty senate meeting to educate faculty about the importance of online programs and to share how your online programs will maintain the same quality as your on-campus programs. And where possible, resist the temptation to make every faculty member’s course identical to those of other faculty members. Standardization is important, but leaving some room for faculty to add personal touches to their online courses can increase faculty buy-in.

Streamline the program approval process

When developing new online programs, colleges and universities can’t just apply the same program launch policies and processes they use for more traditional, face-to-face programs. The online graduate and adult learner markets are more volatile than traditional undergraduate markets —and institutions with inefficient program approval processes can lose out on market share.

Research from our Organizational Benchmarking Initiative found program launch cycles that take from six to 24 months allow institutions to effectively conduct rigorous demand and competitor analyses, develop targeted marketing campaigns, and prioritize program quality while capturing revenue opportunities.

Speed-to-launch alone is insuficient for substantial revenue gains

  • <6 months

    Prioritizing speed may cause colleges and universities to overlook critical, revenue impacting components of program launch (e.g., marketing competitor analysis)

  • 6-24 months

    Allows colleges and universities to effectively conduct market validation research, build strategic marketing campaigns, and build high-quality online programs

  • >24 months

    Institutions that require more than two years to approve new online degree programs often fail to capitalize on shorter-term program opportunities, contributing to limited enrollment and revenue growth

Institutions can make their program approval more efficient—without compromising any stage of the process—by allowing approval committees to met as needed rather than waiting for regularly scheduled meetings. Designating a specific governance body to approve potential online programs and allowing that group to vote by email or electronic survey can also accelerate the online program approval process.

Of course, these are just a few of the many factors to consider when developing online programs, including accreditation, authorization, intellectual property policies, technological infrastructure and support, instructional design, and support services for online students. Consider me as a resource for questions you may have about developing online programs—and scaling them for growth.

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