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How would you define today's graduate student?

It's not so simple, is it?

That's because they're evolving. Constantly. In fact, by the time you’ve defined the graduate learner of your school's dreams, and created a marketing strategy to find, attract, and enroll them, their needs, goals, and even how they decide on a program will have evolved yet again.

Graduate learner demographics are changing. Prospective students are more ethnically and culturally diverse than previous years, increasingly female, increasingly international, and they are matriculating with nontraditional credentials like online certificates, MOOCs, stackable credentials, digital badges, and nanodegrees. And that's just the beginning.

In a recent report, Blackboard pulled together some data that sheds light on how modern graduate students find, evaluate, and decide on graduate programs.

Here are the top three actionable findings and what you can do to address them:

1) Graduate student prospects are digital-first—and you should be, too.

The majority of students say they rely on digital research to help them decide which school to go toand say these sources are twice as influential compared to admissions counselors. Graduate students primarily rely on online tools such as email, online chat, and institution websites to research program options. Our research shows that 87 percent of graduate students prefer email as their primary form of communication with a college or university during the application and enrollment phases.

Expectations for follow-up are high with graduate students, but many institutions struggle to proactively engage and articulate what makes them unique. Well-executed strategic enrollment management increases engagement and inspires loyalty with studentsjust like many of the brands graduate students interact with on a daily basis (ex: Amazon, Apple, Southwest). In fact, graduate students often tell us their perception of your school, and ultimately their decision to enroll, can be heavily influenced by the experience they have before they enroll or even apply.

Action Item: Take a good look at your email communication strategy for prospective students. Consider creating a series of triggered emails to ensure your prospects have all the information they need about your program and a clear pathway to apply and enroll. You may also want to consider adding an online chat option to your website.

2) Choosing a graduate school is an impulse buy.

Surprising, huh? But it’s not exactly what you think. It takes prospective graduate students between 7-18 months to pull the trigger on graduate school. Before they decide which school to attend, graduate learners consider several factors in their life such as family obligations, work, and finances. When the conditions are right, they will be ready to act fast, favoring the school that has remained top of mind and can make it as easy for them to enroll as possible.

Our research found that the top three questions prospective students want answers to during that time are: (1) How much? (2) How long? and (3) What do I get for it? Is that information buried or not easily attainable online? If so, there is a real risk of losing potential applicants to competitor schools and programs.

Action Item: Make sure your value proposition is clearand clearly communicated—on all of your digital channels. Practice tailoring your school’s value proposition to various prospective students: a young just-out-of-undergrad student, a working mom, an international student, etc. And think of where and how you can use those solutions to make the decision to enroll in your program that much easier.

3) Students are looking for a good investments—the value of your programs should be clear.

The connection between marketing and program development might not always be obvious, but your degree programs are actually one of the most crucial parts of your marketing strategy. If students don’t understand what you’re offering, don’t know what makes your program special, or don’t believe it’s going to benefit them in the long run, why would they choose your school over another?

When developing your marketing campaign, it is important to reflect on both the kinds of programs and, as importantly, how you describe them to increase their appeal with prospective students.

Action Item: Mark your calendar to reevaluate your potential new programs. Sit down with your academic team and industry professionals to hear from them what they’ll be looking for in strong candidates in the future. And remember, degrees with increasing demand and relatively low competition should be evaluated for potential program development.

Next, get your program team and marketing team together to dig deeper into how a prospective student would view your offerings. Here are some questions to answer as a group:

  • Do you have the programs students are looking for? This is the last chance to validate your assumptions and introduce the new programs to the marketing team.
  • Are there specializations you can add to existing degree programs to increase their appeal? There may be smaller scale changes to make to your programs that won’t require an overhaul.
  • Do the names of your programs appeal to students? Are they described in materials in an easy-to-understand way? Sometimes just renaming your programs can increase their appeal and clear descriptions can help students see themselves in your school.

While there is no typical graduate learner, the more you know about how graduate learners are evolving, the better you can prepare to attract and enroll them. There are data-driven strategies you can develop to reach them, connect with them, and provide them with enough information they need to take action when they’re ready, which (as we now know) could be a while.

Jacqueline Hammond is Blackboard’s Executive Director of Marketing and Enrollment Services, a growing division she established within Blackboard centered around helping institutions achieve sustainable growth. 

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