As I travel around the country consulting with campuses, more and more institutions ask for my recommendations for recruiting graduate and professional students. For graduate programs at comprehensive/research institutions, this tends to reflect a shift in thinking toward a more unified recruitment approach, as marketing and recruitment efforts have traditionally been decentralized and driven by individual schools or campus departments. For other graduate programs, such as stand-alone business schools, chiropractic schools, seminaries, and graduate/professional programs that are not part of a university, the desire to strengthen recruiting reflects an increased push on campuses to apply the more forceful levels of undergraduate recruitment to the art and science of enrollment management at the graduate level.
For both types of institutions, my observation is that graduate recruitment is often not handled with an optimal level of direction, efficiency, and precision, making it a much more uneven process than undergraduate admissions. The problems I see fall into ten issues that affect everything from planning to marketing to financial aid. I’ll examine the first five in this post and the other five in a follow-up post.
Issue 1: There is little influence from “the top”
First, there is a cultural difference between undergraduate and graduate recruitment that leads to a hands-off approach to goal setting for graduate programs. Unlike undergraduate recruitment, where enrollment goals are set by the campus executive leadership, graduate recruitment is often seen as the territory of individual academic programs and their faculty members, if goals are set at all. This is due in part because graduate programs and their faculty often associate enrollment goals as counter to their educational mission. In addition, growth goals must be tied to student-faculty ratios and capacity, and in these volatile budget times, deans and vice presidents are very careful not to hire new faculty in the hope that the department will achieve growth—a bit of a catch 22. The result is passive or no overall direction, and consequently little pressure to set goals or establish accountability—both of which are enormously important to recruitment planning.
In addition, without the active involvement and strong support of executive leaders in graduate recruitment, it is difficult to secure the level of resources needed to build a strong graduate recruitment program. For example, several years ago I was working with a large flagship research institution where I was asked to teach the 100+ graduate programs how to develop a recruitment plan. At the introductory meeting attended by all of the deans, department heads, and graduate program directors, the vice president for academic affairs addressed the group and indicated that he had earmarked well over one million dollars for the implementation of the individual plans. The money was contingent on each program having a completed plan, complete with goals, on his desk in three months.
Issue 2: Graduate recruitment is decentralized
With the exception of stand-alone graduate programs, the first issue I raised above naturally makes graduate recruitment a decentralized effort. Graduate program directors who are charged with working with prospective students are typically faculty members whose primary purpose is to teach, conduct scholarly research, and advise students; they tend to have no training or experience in the fundamentals of recruitment. As a result, follow-up and faculty commitments are inconsistent, communications and Web content are uneven, and database management virtually non-existent. This leads to a process that lacks focus and dilutes your recruitment resources.
Issue 3: A desire to shape the class, not grow it—creating a disconnect between the two
Shaping is of course very important, but at the graduate level, it sometimes is seen as a separate or more desirable goal than growing enrollment. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. Growth can bring significant benefits to graduate programs such as more qualified students, increased revenue, and a wider diversity of students.
Issue 4: Ignoring the top end of the funnel
Most graduate recruitment efforts do not focus as much as they should on prospects and inquiries, instead starting the process at the applicant stage. This is a reactive way to conduct graduate admissions and robs programs of the opportunity to be more strategic in their efforts.
Graduate and professional programs need to take a lesson from undergraduate admissions and proactively build their inquiry pools through travel, solicitation, referral, and self-initiated avenues. They also need to understand how to use conversion theory to grow and shape enrollments. While this theory involves various combinations of increasing the applicant pool and increasing or decreasing the acceptance rates, the key is focusing on inquiry pool development and the conversion of inquiries to applications in order to achieve the desired enrollment results.
Issue 5: An inadequate database to track all funnel activities
Given the number of departments involved in graduate/professional recruitment and the larger number of entry points for inquiries throughout the institution, having a robust, organized data process is crucial. This encompasses four key points:
- Having a centralized database that is accessible to all relevant parties and capable of handling the data those parties need to track;
- Training for staff on proper data entry and tracking, as well as establishing a commitment to strong data management;
- The ability to account for different program start dates, data fields, and other items that may vary from program to program; and
- Creation of management reports that allow the program directors to compare and project new student enrollment.
I made a reference earlier to the “art and science” of recruitment. Simply put, there is no science component to the process without a strong functional database to support the plan.
I will examine the next five issues in a follow-up post. In the meantime, please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail me if you have any questions about your own graduate/professional recruitment efforts.
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