How to make academic programs attractive to prospective students

To hit institution-level enrollment targets, enrollment managers (EMs) must optimize the competitiveness of individual undergraduate programs.

Most enrollment shops already report program-level enrollment data to academic leadership. However, the focus is not always on competition, and competitive analyses tend to be institution-wide rather than program-specific. Increasing enrollment at the program level requires a clear understanding of where those specific programs may be losing share to competitors, and why:

  • Identify competitor institutions: Using data from the National Student Clearinghouse, identify the institutions and programs that are attracting your admitted students
  • Visit competitor program websites: Visit competitors' websites to identify what program characteristics may be attracting your admitted students

National Student Clearinghouse data provides a window into program quality and revenue loss

Program websites are helpful to convert inquiries to applicants but their discovery depends on students first identifying the programs as enrollment contenders. Students are typically identified online when they search for the institution and their intended major.

How does your EM office measure up to your peers?

Out-of-date or uncommon names fail to attract students and signal a program that may not be keeping pace with industry trends. EMs should flag programs in need of naming and specialization refreshment by benchmarking their enrollment performance to peers using National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data.

Step One: Sizing Enrollment Opportunity Loss
National Student Clearinghouse Data Segmented by Program

Benchmarking Data

Most institutions use NSC data to identify their top freshman overlap schools but these same data are key to assessing individual programs’ performance. EMs can identify the students who indicated interest or applied to the program under review and then use NSC data to determine each program’s top peers. Because some programs attract distinct student segments, the program-level assessment often reveals different peers than those identified at an institutional level. By sizing the headcount, revenue, and academic quality lost from applicants enrolling at peer institutions, EMs can alert academic leaders to the need for enrollment improvement.

Why programs with stalled enrollment have the highest growth potential

A new face for an old program attracts enrollment growth

Additionally, by narrowing program competitors to a handful of peers, EMs assist academic leaders in identifying program refreshment opportunities—pinpointing top institutions for program comparisons.


Marist College noted that its otherwise strong computer science program was losing admitted students to an institution with a less robust program, despite Marist’s strong intern placement and employment outcomes derived from its relationship with IBM.

The EM’s market research identified that the program had failed to signal its value by keeping specializations up-to-date. While Marist offered a generic computer science degree, its peer had added specializations in gaming and software development. Additional specializations, which did not require added faculty, led to a 10% boost in computer science enrollment after just two years from an additional 25 students.

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