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3 Steps to Create a Winning Graduate and Adult Enrollment Growth Strategy

How to gain market share in the competitive graduate and adult learner market

December 2, 2021

In our survey of deans of professional and adult education, we found that they faced average annual revenue growth goals of 15%. But with graduate enrollment expected to grow less than 1% annually across the next decade, it’s clear that the graduate and adult learner market is incredibly competitive and crowded. And not every institution will be able to meet these lofty growth goals.

  • 75%

    of strategic plans list graduate or adult education as a priority*

  • 15%

    average revenue growth goal for deans of professional and adult education**

  • <1%

    average annual graduate enrollment growth projected by NCES, 2021-29

*Based on EAB review of 36 randomly selected strategic plans representative of different institutional types

**Gross annual revenue

Given these market challenges, it is increasingly important to have an enrollment strategy that supports your institution in growing its share of the graduate and adult learner market. After working with colleges and universities for over a decade to grow graduate, online, professional, and adult enrollment, I have learned what successful adult-serving institutions have in common: nimble growth strategies that leverage unique attributes and strengths to drive competitive advantage.

Here are three steps to create a dynamic graduate and adult enrollment growth strategy—because the stakes are too high not to have an effective and adaptable strategy in place.

Step 1: Identify your institution’s strengths and differentiators

Before you can develop a smart growth strategy, you need to identify what makes your institution unique and attractive to prospective students. Once you know what differentiates your institution, you can highlight these features and use them to your advantage. Is it your flexible and comprehensive online offerings? Is it the way your programs and corporate partnerships prepare students for career advancement? Is it your cutting-edge technology or your well-respected faculty?

But figuring out what your strengths are is not always as easy as it seems. Reading student evaluations and analyzing course registration data can shed light on your institution’s unique value proposition and selling points. Another way to identify your strengths is to examine your program portfolio to understand which offerings are most central to your brand and have the greatest opportunities for growth. Review regional labor market data and competitor programs to further help you determine which programs are most likely to drive growth. I enjoy helping our partners optimize their portfolios with our customized recommendations and consulting to provide support at all stages of the program development process. Sometimes, an outside, third-party perspective can make all the difference.

See how one institution grew enrollments even after 12 competitors launched similar programs

Step 2: Map your growth strategy to your differentiators

In my work with 150+ of our Adult Learner Recruitment partner institutions, I’m constantly reminded that there is no one size fits all growth solution because no two institutions are exactly alike. A winning strategy for a small private institution in the Midwest will likely be a losing strategy for a large public in the South.

Keep your key differentiators at the center of your growth strategy. For example, if you identify that your price point attracts students, maybe you become even more competitive by focusing on optimizing your financial aid strategy. Or, if you realize that it is your connections to the local job market and abundant experiential learning opportunities that set you apart, you can focus on strengthening your employer partnerships.

From there, it’s important to advertise these differentiators prominently. Designing intentional and personalized marketing campaigns that highlight your strengths and differentiators is the only sure way to get your name into the market. Ensure you are designing nuanced campaigns that highlight your strengths at scale according to student intent and behavior.

Explore why email drip campaigns aren’t cutting it anymore

Step 3: Monitor your progress and make adjustments as necessary

Creating and maintaining a successful enrollment strategy means tracking, assessing, testing, and monitoring your campaign performance consistently. Even further that that, a successful strategy requires updating or even transforming your marketing strategy based on campaign data.

Our research has identified effective strategies for monitoring the progress and success of your marketing campaigns by tracking established KPIs, milestones, and outcomes. A tool, like a digital portal that tracks and analyzes campaign performance data in real time, can help your team evaluate your overall campaign performance, compare outcomes from various digital sources, and track the viability of particular audiences and segments.

It’s also important that you can share this campaign performance data easily with university leaders and board members. Data allows institutions to demonstrate the success of investments and set the course for a stable growth plan. This data visibility also offers improved risk mitigation that can inform responses to unforeseen challenges, market volatility or shifting priorities, and keep your institution one step ahead of competitors.

Learn how data science can improve your marketing strategy

Ultimately, the key to winning a larger share of the graduate and adult learner market is to first pinpoint what makes your institution stand out amongst your market competitors. Then focus on enhancing and marketing your differentiators. From there, continue to monitor your campaigns’ effectiveness and modify it based on your campaign performance data. Developing a winning strategy to grow graduate and adult learner enrollment has real-world implications—serving more students and providing more opportunities at your institution:


"Because of the incremental MBA enrollments that the campaign drove, we have been able to save 4 faculty member positions. That's 4 people who would be without a job right now if it wasn't for the MBA growth in enrollment."


Leader of College of Business at Partner Institution

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