Enrollment management is a common practice in undergraduate admissions. Most campuses practice it to some degree, using more data-informed approaches to recruit undergraduate students, creating strategic enrollment plans, and centralizing their admissions structure. For graduate programs, however, enrollment management is often a foreign concept—especially for the individual departments that are often charged with generating new student enrollment. Many graduate and professional programs still “recruit” students as they always have—hauling in interested students like fishermen casting their nets and checking later to see what they caught.
That approach, however, does not fly in an increasingly competitive graduate and professional higher education market. The market is crowded, and with overall graduate enrollment taking a hit in recent years, graduate and professional programs need to get more strategic, coordinated, and aggressive in enrolling new students.
That is easier said than done. I have worked as a consultant with academic and professional graduate programs for 20 years, and in that time, I have seen five key issues that undermine new graduate student enrollment.
1) Decentralized recruitment. Culturally, graduate recruitment has been mostly decentralized, with the academic affairs and graduate college/school leadership hesitant to micro-manage the recruitment efforts of individual certificate, master’s, and doctoral programs. However, this often results in a recruitment process that lacks focus and organization, leading to a scattered, ineffective graduate recruitment effort.
2) Lack of accountability. In most cases I’ve seen, the chief academic and the chief financial officers have a clear understanding of where they would like to see graduate enrollment metrics in terms of new and continuing students; typically, however, these goals are not cascaded further down than the dean of the respective college/school. This can also be traced to the decentralized nature of graduate recruitment. The result is that no one takes charge, therefore no one is responsible. This also leads to a lack of understanding as to what the new student enrollment goals are for each program.
3) Lack of training. Faculty program directors charged with recruitment are typically junior faculty members who have either been assigned to oversee the recruitment of the new student class, or veteran faculty members who deeply care about the program. In both instances, while trained academics, they do not have adequate training in recruiting graduate students.
4) Inconsistent and ineffective recruitment strategies. This is especially the case at the top of the funnel with inquiry pool development. Most programs do a good job communicating and building relationships with students after they have applied and been accepted. Centralization and leadership are crucial for building a prospective graduate student inquiry pool.
5) Lack of a marketing and recruitment plan. Whether it’s a macro plan for the institution or a micro plan for the individual program, I rarely see comprehensive graduate enrollment plans that position themselves competitively, build interest in their programs, identify key strategies to achieve goals, include action plans designed to implement the key strategies, communicate their strengths, and cultivate their primary and secondary markets.
Compared with academic graduate programs, professional programs (such as law, medicine, and business) often differ in their recruitment challenges, but I find that many professional programs have at least some of these five issues as well.
Taking steps toward centralizing graduate enrollment leadership while balancing departmental autonomy
To overcome the five issues I just listed, graduate and professional programs need to promote leadership and strategic planning. However, the traditionally decentralized culture of graduate enrollment management may impede the necessary changes.
Thankfully, there are steps that campuses can take to help centralize graduate enrollment management while providing academic programs with the autonomy they desire to make admissions and scholarship/assistantship decisions. First, I encourage the graduate dean to consider hiring a director of graduate enrollment who has expertise in marketing and recruitment. This enrollment professional can serve as the liaison between the graduate college and the various programs.
Then, graduate programs can use these three strategies, which have been very effective in centralizing a decentralized process:
- Develop and utilize a common enrollment database/customer relationship management process to centralize incoming data from prospective students (all inbound inquiries).
- Create and manage a core communications plan to prospective graduate students.
- Collect all documents from students that lead to the completed application, and prepare the files for transfer to the appropriate program for their timely review.
Hiring a director of graduate enrollment and following these three steps can promote centralization as well as communication, which increases efficiency during the recruitment process. This hands off some of the administrative and top-of-the-funnel administrative functions in the graduate admissions office, while allowing the graduate program directors (who are the program content experts) the opportunity to work with better qualified students—something prospective students appreciate. The result includes shared accountability and an institutional commitment to the success of its graduate and professional students.
Taking the first step with a 20-minute evaluation
I invite you to email me with your graduate enrollment challenges. I will ask for some additional information, and then we can schedule a 20-minute evaluation to review top-line concerns and corrective steps. Even this brief discussion can start focusing your campus on key decisions that you need to achieve the graduate enrollment levels you desire.
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