Notre Dame College

While undergraduate enrollment dropped at colleges and universities this fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, recent data shows graduate programs are seeing a 2.9% increase nationwide, with private, nonprofit colleges reporting a 1.4% increase compared with fall 2019.

One of those new students is Jeff Snowden. After moving from Maryland a few years ago, the U.S. Navy veteran said he didn’t have a strong professional network in Cleveland and often heard during his job search that he was competing against people who had advanced degrees.

He got close to locking in a job advising other veterans at a local college earlier this year. The gig looked good, he said, until the pandemic began and the position’s funding dried up.

“So I said, ‘OK, Roger that,’ “ said Snowden, who is 58. “And then I thought to myself, ‘All right, I haven’t got the job I want yet. I might as well continue my education.’”

He’s now enrolled in Notre Dame College’s new MBA program. And he may not be alone in using this time to pivot to graduate programs. Enrollment at higher education institutions can be countercyclical during an economic downturn as people navigate a job loss or look to learn new skills in an attempt to boost wages.

Looking for New Revenue

In Northeast Ohio, several small private colleges are working to launch new graduate offerings even as the impact of the pandemic continues to level economic uncertainty. When it comes to these programs, college consultant Susan Baldridge said, large research institutions typically eye profits and losses closely, making sure those programs cover costs at a minimum. While that’s not always the case for smaller schools, she said administrators on those campuses who are looking for an additional revenue stream may find a natural fit by leveraging their current undergraduate programming.

“They often go in the direction of thinking about whether there are some graduate program opportunities, usually at the master’s level, not the Ph.D. level,” she said. “Especially if those master’s programs can be professionally oriented where they think they might be able to get enough net revenue to really contribute to the bottom line.”

Not all master’s offerings are created equal when it comes to how much revenue they generate. But when just talking about revenue implications, programs that cost less to produce and draw in more payments from students can be the ones with the largest profit margins.

For students, earning an advanced degree is an investment. And it’s getting pricier. A report from The Urban Institute think tank found the net price students actually paid between 1996 and 2016 rose at a far quicker rate for master’s degrees compared with bachelor’s degrees.

Snowden said he’s using benefits from the GI Bill to fund the bulk of his education. For his classmates, the cost for Notre Dame’s MBA program is $500 per credit hour, or $15,000 for the program. Alumni receive a 10% discount, and the program does accept up to six transfer credits.

Many graduate programs don’t offer additional institutional financial aid. That’s the case at Lake Erie College. Education graduate classes cost $499 per credit hour, MBA courses are $730 per credit hour, and a physician assistant program is $775 per credit hour

Business school dean Jennifer Kinnaird said students that are paying non-discounted rates does help to offset undergraduate enrollment losses on the Painesville campus.

“We’re looking at where is the market?” she said. “Undergraduate programs are not going to go away. There’s always going to be a need for them, but we know there’s ebb and flow in demand and what students’ ideas and future plans are. So as we look at that, how do we make sure that we can remain viable at both program levels? There’s growth opportunity in the graduate area.”

Twenty-three percent of Lake Erie College’s roughly 1,000 students comprise its graduate enrollment, higher than its other similarly sized peers in the region. The campus wants to expand on that as it works on a new online masters of professional studies degree expected to launch in August. The credit-hour cost is the same as its MBA offering.

Roughly 60 miles away in Alliance, the University of Mount Union recently earned approval for its new fully online MBA program from its accreditor. The 36-credit program is set to begin next May. Credits are listed at $695 per hour, with discounts available for alumni, too.

Building a Graduate Culture

Kristine Still, founding dean of the College of Applied and Social Sciences, said the university is working to build its graduate culture on its campus of about 1,900 students.

“We’re kind of on a newer frontier with graduate education here,” she said. “But we just want to make sure that the values of the institution remain intact.”

Many new graduate offerings are online-only or have a digital option. Some schools across the country use what are known as online program managers (OPM) to help facilitate and run these programs. Agreements vary from place to place, but OPMs have been estimated by some to receive as much as 40% to 60% of a program’s tuition revenue.

Notre Dame College uses a company called Wiley Education Services. Officials declined to share financial details of the college’s arrangement but sung the company’s praises for the range of services it provides.

“We’ve certainly received many, many benefits,” said Florentine Hoelker, dean of online and graduate programs “They pay for all the marketing for online and graduate programs. They’ve helped us. Because we’re a small liberal arts college, we don’t have a lot of resources.”

The campus currently offers degrees in education, national security and nursing in addition to its new MBA degree. Like its peers across the region, Notre Dame is considering increasing master’s degrees as part of its short- and long-term plans, Hoelker said.

That growth is already happening. Hoelker said numbers for some spring 2021 graduate programs are already seeing a “surge” compared with the previous spring.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.