Understanding the Changing Market for Professional Master's Programs

An Introduction for Deans and Other Academic Leaders

Topics: Curriculum Development, Academic Planning, Academic Affairs, Program Prioritization

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Executive Summary

A market that is growing—and changing

Enrollment in master's programs has exploded in the last two decades, leaving many to wonder if the market for new programs is already gone. Yet the market for master’s degrees is both growing and changing. Across the next decade, master's degrees are projected to grow far faster than degrees at any other level. By 2022, experts predict, master's degrees will account for nearly a third of all degrees awarded.

This new growth will come primarily from professional master's programs focused on specific job skills that help students gain a new job or advance in an existing position. These programs will, however, look very different from the historically popular professional programs (such as the MBA, JD, and MEd) that account for the majority of graduate degrees added in recent years. With falling demand and barriers to expansion, those degrees now face slower growth as well as increased competition.

In the core graduate degree disciplines of business, law, and education, the best growth opportunities lie in creating specialized programs—such as the master’s in finance or master of laws (LLM)—that appeal to new populations of students, make use of existing high-cost resources, and don't devalue existing degrees.

However, the fastest rates of growth in master's degrees across the next decade will take place outside the fields that currently dominate enrollments. Programs in business, law, education, and health care now award 62% of all graduate degrees, but except for health care these fields are not growing at an especially fast rate. Instead, the fastest growth lies in niche programs that are customized to new and rapidly changing roles, such as cybersecurity, data analytics, and health informatics. These programs are commonly housed outside the major professional schools and tend to cross traditional fields and disciplines.

As niche programs are tied so closely to professional opportunities, many of which are regional, demand may be concentrated in particular geographic markets. Unlike traditional master's programs, which depend on brand recognition and rankings to attract students, niche programs can attract students by "micro-targeting" a specific need in a specific industry to a specific student segment.

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Focusing on student segments

In both core disciplines and new niche fields, the key to capturing emerging market growth is customizing offerings not just to "working professionals" but to distinct segments within this group— career starters, career advancers, career changers, and career crossers—through features such as flexible delivery, stackable credentials, practical experience, accelerated format, interdisciplinary pathways, and professional development.

These features break through the constraints of geography, schedule, age, and academic preparation that have historically and artificially limited the master’s degree marketplace. Freed of these constraints, professional master's programs appeal to the needs of a much larger population.

A Market That Is Growing—and Changing