4 ways to adjust your graduate student recruitment strategy during COVID-19


4 ways to adjust your graduate student recruitment strategy during COVID-19

Results from EAB and NAGAP’s new survey of 800+ enrollment leaders


By Will Lamb

As a former graduate school dean, I know firsthand that, as the market changes, your enrollment strategy must adapt too.

EAB recently partnered with NAGAP to conduct a survey to learn how 800+ graduate enrollment leaders are adapting their recruitment and admissions strategies during COVID-19. Below are four survey insights to help guide your strategy.

In partnership with NAGAP, we sent three separate flash polls on different topics to both EAB partners and NAGAP members from September 2020 to January 2021. Across the three polls, we surveyed a total of 805 graduate enrollment leaders representing 640 colleges and universities and 50 states.

1. Prioritize personalized, interactive marketing

When we asked graduate enrollment leaders if they were changing their recruitment strategies in light of COVID-19, an unsurprising 98% of participants said yes. The most popular change reported was the addition of virtual events. In the absence of in-person open houses, information sessions, and admitted student days, virtual events are critical to generating an engaged prospect audience.

To ensure a virtual event runs smoothly, many of the graduate schools I work with through our Adult Learner Recruitment initiative designate an event manager responsible for logistics and use a trial run to iron out potential technical issues. I also recommend enrollment leaders offer program-specific sessions during which students can network with potential classmates and ask questions of faculty.

In addition to adding virtual events to their recruitment repertoires, over half of respondents increased personalized outreach and marketing efforts. A slightly lower but still significant portion of respondents added virtual tours and changed their application deadlines to accommodate students during the pandemic.

What adjustments were made to recruitment strategies and tactics due to COVID-19?

  • 0%

    Added virtual events

  • 0%

    Increased personalized outreach

  • 0%

    Increased Marketing Efforts

  • 0%

    Added virtual tours

  • 0%

    Changed application deadlines

The move toward more personalized, interactive outreach reflected in the survey aligns with the trend toward intent marketing. The longer I’ve worked with adult learners—and now especially in my role supporting graduate enrollment leaders at institutions across the country—the more I realize how imperative it is that we customize marketing to each student. As prospective students become more tech savvy, they are increasingly expecting personalized and targeted ads—generic emails won’t cut it anymore. As students move through the enrollment funnel, they need content that responds to their interests, goals, and concerns. Intent marketing is a strategy that does just that.

Intent marketing relies on real-time responses from students rather than just using historicaland potentially outdatedindicators of student behaviors and interests. We’ve seen firsthand how effective this strategy can be in generating leads and driving enrollments.

2. Remove unnecessary barriers to entry

In my workshops with deans and other enrollment leaders, our conversations about program growth often turn to admissions requirements. I typically go back to four key principles when evaluating a program’s admissions requirements:


Do you have enough information to make a good decision in most cases?


Can you communicate your admissions criteria easily?


Can you reply quickly to most candidates?


Have you eliminated unnecessary hurdles?

hover over

As a result of COVID-19, students are facing more hurdles than ever before, and my conversations with enrollment leaders often focus on the fourth principle: access. 60% of survey respondents said they relaxed admissions requirements through tactics like eliminating test score requirements, waiving application fees, and accepting unofficial documents; and 52% of respondents offered more deferred admissions.

3. Think critically about growth drivers—with a focus on online programs

While changing recruitment strategies can be effective, it’s often only part of the solution. To ensure they meet their enrollment goals, graduate leaders must ensure that their programs are attractive to students. And that starts with a portfolio of right-fit, well-designed programs. Survey results tell us that 76% of enrollment leaders have made changes to their graduate programs in light of COVID-19. More than half expanded online programs, but 18% of respondents also cancelled low-enrollment programs and 13% expedited new program launches.

What changes are being made to graduate programs due to COVID-19?


expanded fully online programs


canceled low-enrollment programs


expedited new program launches

The in-demand jobs and fields growing today are different than they were even just a year ago. A portfolio that served students well and set them up for success in the job market then likely won’t suffice today. To ensure the success and health of your graduate programs, analyze your current portfolio to see which programs are growing and which aren’t, scan the market to find new programs you could introduce, and choose the options that best appeal to your targeted prospects.

4. Keep a pulse on what students really want

To supplement our survey of graduate enrollment leaders, we also conducted surveys of current and prospective graduate and professional students to understand their needs and priorities when selecting an academic program. These surveys revealed that 46% of graduate students most value successful job placement and that 44% seek an advanced degree to further their careers. Students are also looking for a return on their investment, with 23% valuing moderate tuition prices and 38% looking to increase their earning potential. But more than that, students are interested in investing in themselves. 44% of surveyed graduate students want to pursue their own passions and 32% seek a program that will allow them to build strong relationships with faculty and mentors.

Why students further their education

  • To pursue their passions

  • To advance their career

  • To increase earning potential


What students value most

  • Successful job placement

  • Strong relationships with professors & mentors

  • Moderate tuition prices


But in comparing the student survey data with the results of our survey of graduate enrollment leaders, we noticed a slight disconnect between what students value and what graduate enrollment leaders think students value. Notably, students placed the value of high name recognition last on their list of priorities, while enrollment leaders placed this in the middle of the pack.

What makes a program 'worth' the cost of attending for students?

Student priorities ranked by importance and enrollment leaders’ perceptions of student priorities
1 Successful job placement 1
2 Accredited programs 6
3 Strong relationships with professors and mentors 3
4 Moderate tuition prices 2
5 Generous financial aid award 5
6 Comprehensive set of academic programs 7
7 Modern, state-of-the-art academic facilities 8
8 High name recognition 4

These insights suggest that when identifying whether your program can compete in a market where you have limited name recognition, lower name recognition on its own may not be a barrier for many students.

The survey results highlighted above are just a few of the adjustments enrollment leaders have made during the pandemic. And while we can’t say what the next year has in store, we know it will continue to be important to adapt in order to keep up with changes in the market.

Ready to find out more about graduate program planning?

Learn how to develop competitive programs to stand out in a crowded market.

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