The Master’s Degree Market Slowdown


The Master’s Degree Market Slowdown Infographic

Master's Degree Market Slowdown Infographic

Today more institutions than ever hope to grow master’s degree enrollments. Whether to diversify revenues, recoup losses from a decline in traditional undergrads, advance a mission to lead economic development, or serve working adults, nearly every type of institution plans to double down on this market.

But the master’s degree market has become more competitive than it was five years ago. What were once booming enrollments have now reached a plateau.

Every year since 2013 the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) has lowered its expectations for master’s degree growth. It projects nearly flat growth over the next 10 years.

Many institutions will need to adjust their expectations for what’s possible in this landscape. With revenue stakes high, understanding these trends and where the growth is—and isn’t—will be critical to devising the right strategy for the years ahead.

Pockets of growth only in high-cost fields

Prior to 2011, the largest master’s degree fields all experienced healthy growth, averaging about 5% each year. However, this pattern of broadly uniform growth ended after 2011 as growth patterns diverged.

Master’s degree conferrals in health professions and computer science boomed, adding nearly 80K conferrals between 2011 and 2018. Specialized business fields, engineering, and public administration grew more slowly, and psychology barely grew at all.

Education and MBA programs, which confer the most and third most master’s degrees respectively, fell into a dramatic decline, together losing more than 48K conferrals. 

Even though the master’s degree market as a whole grew between 2011 and 2018, most of this growth occurred in only a few programs which are also the most expensive to develop and run.

Computer science, health professions, engineering, and specialized business fields all require large investments to recruit faculty and develop essential facilities.

As ever fewer students enroll in a smaller number of fields, it is increasingly important for institutions to carefully evaluate their master’s degree strategy.

10 questions higher education leaders should ask about their institution’s master’s degree portfolio

Strategy questions:

What assumptions are we making about the potential for master’s degree growth?

Who are our competitors and is there still room for us to grow?

How are we setting targets for both revenue and margin across the portfolio?

How expensive will it be to reach these targets?

Do we have the right infrastructure and specialized expertise to recruit adult students?

Program questions:

Should we focus on launching new programs or growing existing offerings?

Which of my existing programs have potential to grow with the fewest resources?

How do we evaluate market demand?

What drives program launch decisions—market demand or faculty interest?

How hard will it be to discontinue a program that underperforms?

Want to drive growth in your adult-serving programs?

Rather than choose a credential to launch and hope to find an audience, first determine the audience a program will serve and then build the offering to meet their needs. Read our Roadmap on how to effectively design credentials to meet adult student needs.

EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment initiative combines consumer analytics, intent marketing, market research, and strategic consulting to fuel smart growth for graduate, online, and degree completer program unlike online program management companies, we work with you to drive growth without assuming control of core academic functions like curriculum design. And unlike digital marketing agencies, we are a full funnel enrollment solution—with 30 years of expertise generating results from brand awareness to lead generation—all the way through application marketing and yield management.

Our Professional & Adult Education Forum provides employer-focused market research, marketing and recruiting strategy studies, and implementation resources to help you compete in a crowded market while supporting institutional goals. Our data-focused approach will empower you to make informed decisions across a wide range of areas, including:

EAB asks you to accept cookies for authorization purposes, as well as to track usage data and for marketing purposes. To get more information about these cookies and the processing of your personal information, please see our Privacy Policy. Do you accept these cookies and the processing of your personal information involved?