Traditional Student Demand

The Public Doctoral Enrollment Boom: How Institutions Can Adapt

Blog post cover image

The COVID-19 Pandemic has unsettled the competitive environment among college-bound high school prospects. The sudden move to test optional opened the floodgates, encouraging students to apply to more and different kinds of institutions. As the dust begins to settle, one thing is clear – the public doctoral institution came out on top.

On the low end, some categories of institutions lost an additional 3% of non-enrolling students to public doctoral institutions; on the high end, these additional losses were as high as 20%. The question is, what does this mean for your institution?

Undergraduate enrollment at public doctoral institutions has enjoyed a longstanding upward trajectory. National data shows that the percentage of traditional-aged undergraduate students (defined as first-time full-time, degree- and certificate-seeking students who have graduated high school in the last 12 months) enrolled at public doctoral-level institutions . The COVID-19 pandemic has only accelerated this trend.

Figure 1 shows where non-enrolling students attend vis-a-vis their second-choice institutions organized by type of school. The data allows us to see how the competitive environment has changed over the course of the pandemic. In this case, we’ve singled out just the slice of competition from public doctoral institutions.


Non-Enrolling Students Attending Public Doctoral Institutions 2019 to 2021Figure 1.


For every second choice (non-enrolling) institution type, the proportion of students who chose to attend a public doctoral institution has increased over the course of the pandemic (2019-2021). For some sectors, notably the master’s level both public and private, the losses have been heavy. For baccalaureate-level institutions, losses have been less substantial. In the case of both master’s and doctoral level institutions, the majority of competition is public doctoral institutions—whether you are an in-state or out-of-state student.

This realignment should expose any myths institutions might have about where the real competition for students is coming from and refocus institutional efforts to position—or reposition—themselves in their respective markets.

What’s Driving the Public Doctoral Juggernaut?

It’s no stretch to imagine why students are gravitating to these kinds of institutions—the land grant and flagship publics and their close kin. But let’s articulate some hypothesis about why they may be. Some of these hypotheses may be truer of some public doctoral schools than others, but nevertheless, this sector of higher education benefits from the aura of the most visible institutions.

  • Brand equity: these are highly visible institutions with immediate and deep name recognition.
  • Affordability: these are institutions that are reasonably affordable and that have had the wherewithal to remain affordable in difficult economic times.
  • Quality perceptions: these institutions are generally working to provide high quality programs aligned to market demand.
  • Outcomes: these institutions are generally attending to the career needs of their students and the occupational needs of their communities.
  • Proximity: the pandemic has caused students to rethink distances travelled to enrolling institutions and public doctoral schools are capturing more regional interest than before.
  • Operational sophistication: less obvious, these are institutions have high levels of sophistication in enrollment and marketing as well as program delivery.

What can institutions do in the face of this competition?

Should institutions just throw their hands up and succumb to the gathering pace of public doctoral competition? Realistically, many public doctoral institutions are in a strong market position, but that doesn’t mean that the opportunities are gone for institutions of other shapes and sizes. It is always true that out of economic and competitive struggle, rising stars can emerge from any sector of higher education. Institutions in other sectors must find and speak for their places in a market that seems to want big and public. In this regard, institutions should know when to go with the large publics and when to position against them:

1. Emulate public doctoral institutions where possible.

Even though these are large institutions that may not be like your institution, the best of them do get one thing very right – a focus on student needs. Your institution should have this focus, too.

  • Put affordability, outcomes, and value first. Marketability of degrees is top of mind for many students and parents. This should be the focus of your enrollment efforts.
  • Build programs that meet market demand and link to student and employer demands. Schools should not only work to align to student and employer demands, but they should also work to understand programming gaps in the market.
  • Refine targeted enrollment strategies and communications to drive stronger enrollment. Consider the ways in which you can reach the next level in targeted marketing, communications and recruiting of key student groups.

2. Counter-program the public doctoral institutions to create distinction.

The reality is that many smaller public or private institutions won’t have the brand equity of a public doctoral institution or the operational sophistication. This is where an institution must draw a distinction as to why its community and environment add value for students in ways that a large public doctoral institution cannot.

  • Differentiate on the student experience. Bring out your student and faculty voices to showcase the defining features of your educational experience.
  • Differentiate personalized advising/coaching. Build opportunities for individual, personalized career and academic coaching and or advising. This will let students know they can never fall through the cracks.
  • Differentiate on mission. A smaller community can often have a sharper mission. Articulate yours and how it intersects with outcomes and value.

The Bottom Line

The public doctoral institution momentum currently shows no signs of abating; other institutions are going to have to cast themselves in response to what this crucial sector of higher education is offering. While students are flocking to public doctoral campuses, there’s no indication that bigger is actually better for every student. Education at scale will be a significant challenge for these larger institutions. Thus, the current trend is not an inexorable conclusion. Rather, at some point, a new competitive equilibrium will be achieved. What this equilibrium looks like, however, depends on how other institutions respond to the market signals inherent in the current shifts.

In some ways, it’s a lot like Amazon and the independent bookstore. Some time ago, it was feared that independent bookstores would go out of business in the shadow of Amazon. Some did—the ones that weren’t prepared to adapt. Those that have survived and thrived in the age of Amazon are the ones who adapted in two critical ways: they co-opted Amazon’s approach by adding e-commerce and they doubled down on what Amazon could never be, brick-and-mortar centers of a local literary community. This simultaneous learning and reaffirming helped them solidify their market presence.

Institutions competing for students in the age of the ascendent public doctoral institution might learn from this approach as well.

Never Miss Your Wake-Up Call

Learn more about our team of expert research analysts here.

Eduventures Principal Analyst at Encoura

Thursday February 24, 2022 at 2PM ET/1PM CT

Enrollment leaders are often challenged with “doing more, with less”. As you look for new ways to make your student engagement more targeted, how can you efficiently grow and change your class by coupling a few—or many—target markets together?

Join us on Thursday, February 24th to explore how utilizing data science and analytics can better identify populations where you can make the biggest impact—ensuring that your team can still do more, with less. We’ll explore:

  • Ways to future-proof your enrollment strategy and avoid being caught flat-footed by unforeseen challenges in the marketplace
  • How institutional marketing and enrollment teams can collaborate and educate one another so that your institution is set up for success
  • Practical enrollment techniques and innovative digital marketing strategies that can improve your student engagement results for this spring and beyond

This recruitment cycle challenged the creativity of enrollment teams as they were forced to recreate the entire enrollment experience online. The challenge for this spring will be getting proximate to admitted students by replicating new-found practices to increase yield through the summer’s extended enrollment cycle.

By participating in the Eduventures Admitted Student Research, your office will gain actionable insights on:

  • Nationwide benchmarks for yield outcomes
  • Changes in the decision-making behaviors of incoming freshmen that impact recruiting
  • Gaps between how your institution was perceived and your actual institution identity
  • Regional and national competitive shifts in the wake of the post-COVID-19 environment
  • Competitiveness of your updated financial aid model

Like, Follow, Share.

Subscribe card logo

Never Miss Your

Wake-Up Call