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We’ve been colleagues of, and friends with, RNL’s VP of research, Scott Jeffe, for a number of years. Recently, RNL released a 48-page white paper titled “2023 Graduate Marketing and Recruitment Practices Report.” We asked Scott if he’d be willing to answer our questions about this report, and he graciously agreed.

Q: The research presented in the report indicates that universities are finding it increasingly difficult—or at least expensive—to recruit graduate students. Why is this the case, and what should schools be doing to ensure a healthy number of qualified applicants to our degree programs?

Scott Jeffe, a light-skinned man with a goatee and glasses wearing a blue-checked collared shirt and a dark blazer.

A: Graduate schools have to ensure that their programs—formats, schedules, services, etc.—align with student preferences. Programs don’t need to (and shouldn’t) change their content, but they may very well need to change the instructional format, cut the length of terms and adjust the wraparound services available to students. Our “2023 Graduate Student Recruitment Report” (a survey of 1,500 graduate students) makes these preferences crystal clear. There are simply too many program options available today for graduate students to enroll in programs that don’t align with their preferences.

Graduate schools then should determine the extent to which they are applying the most sophisticated marketing and recruitment tactics in use today. RNL’s new report showcases both the extent to which grad schools are doing this and where there are deficiencies. The report also indicates that grad programs are not spending anywhere near what it takes to fill their incoming classes.

Why has it become so expensive? Prospective student behaviors and expectations during the search process have changed dramatically as the primary student generations have shifted from Gen X/millennial to millennial/Gen Z. They search for programs online, they research programs online, they contact institutions online, they expect an immediate response (and are highly likely to enroll in the program that responds first) and they expect personalized contact. Whether it be the costs of regularly updated search engine optimization (SEO) and digital marketing (90-plus percent of grad students start their search on a search engine) or building a recruitment team that can respond to inquiries (in a personal manner) within minutes rather than days, the costs are accelerating.

Q: One of the recommendations in the report is that universities should consider centralizing graduate marketing operations. Why is RNL recommending this change?

A: For most of the history of higher education, educating undergraduates was the core mission of most institutions. They also paid the bills. For this reason the marketing, recruitment and admission of undergraduates was managed centrally in order to ensure full classrooms and the financial stability of the institution. As undergraduate enrollment has declined, graduate (and online) programs have become critical to institutional health. When such programs were not mission critical, it made sense that the centralized marketing and recruitment offices were not diverted from their core responsibilities (filling undergrad classrooms) by having to also market to, recruit and admit these other student audiences.

Now that graduate and online programs are critical to institutional health, the notion that marketing strategies, recruitment tactics and admissions policies should be independently arrived at school by school or program by program doesn’t make sense. Today, graduate classes must also be filled, and this takes sophistication in recruitment and marketing. The new report indicates that marketing operations that are the most centralized get the largest marketing budget allocations, and that they do the best job at collaboration between the marketing and recruitment operations.

One last note. Centralization does not mean folding graduate (or online) marketing and recruitment into an existing undergraduate-focused operation and eliminating the expertise of these student audiences. Doing so is a recipe for disaster. Rather, it implies incorporating expertise of what it takes to successfully attract graduate (and online) students into the central operation. As the traditional audience increasingly moves toward the nontraditional audience in how it searches (online), what it expects (good customer service) and how it makes its enrollment decisions (increasingly on ROI factors), traditional operations have much to learn from graduate (and online) experts.

Q: The report indicates that the cost to enroll a graduate student is now between $3,500 and $5,000. What do you say to university marketing and recruitment professionals who do not have anywhere near those sorts of budget dollars to drive interest and applications for graduate degree programs?

A: Interestingly (or perhaps alarmingly), in some cases the cost to enroll a graduate student considerably surpasses these estimates (which reflect the average amounts reported by our survey respondents.) Costs today are influenced by variables such as the program in question, the targeted geolocations and the level of competition for critical high-intent key words. All of this seeks to ensure that your program is visible in the digital landscape in which most graduate students conduct their program search, the costs associated with the recruitment and cultivation processes that respond to student expectations, and much more.

Institutions that do not have this level of resources should consider several strategic steps:

  1. Prioritize the programs on which marketing dollars are spent. We asked graduate leaders if they spend marketing dollars on all their programs, and while 85 percent said they did, only a small fraction spend the same amount on all. Rather, they spend their scarce resources on the programs on which they are most reliant for meeting enrollment goals or those that have (historically) resulted in the largest enrollments. Adding a focus on programs for which there is demonstrated unmet market demand is another excellent strategy.
  2. Start your marketing efforts with search engine optimization and other digital marketing that will push the program most likely to result in high enrollment (at least) toward the top of search results. If you can get even one of your programs in the top page of search results, you will benefit. Why? Because 40 percent of graduate students tell us the very first thing they do is conduct a search, and another 52 percent indicate that it is the second thing they do. Other data tell us that Google users are significantly more likely to click an organic listing than a paid listing (the first few listings at the top of the page labeled “ad”), but those that click on a paid listing are most likely to say they found what they were looking for. For all of these reasons, limited resources are likely best spent on search marketing.
  3. Finally, graduate marketers need to affirmatively make the case to institutional leadership that the level of resources that have always gone into marketing to and recruiting traditional undergraduates (including things like recruiter travel, college fairs and even the exorbitant discounting that has become commonplace and denies revenue to the institution) have to be considered for graduate programs if they are going to provide the route (back) to institutional health. Institutional leadership cannot expect to bring themselves back from the enrollment cliff “on the cheap.” This is nothing short of changing the entire mindset, but it can all start with the kind of data that are included in both of RNL’s 2023 graduate-focused reports.

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