Despite facing enrollment challenges ranging from incomplete applications to a hurricane, Houston Baptist University has significantly grown their graduate program enrollment over the past several years. HBU’s journey has included establishing The Graduate School in 2010, expanding programs, and piloting a number of new recruitment initiatives.
Jennie Bailey, Strategic Leader for EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment program, sat down with Allyson Cates, Director of Graduate Recruitment at Houston Baptist University, to discuss what Allyson and her team have learned about marketing to graduate students across the past seven years.
Jennie: What advice do you have for other schools looking to grow their graduate enrollment?
Allyson: One lesson that we’ve really taken to heart is the need to test new strategies and adapt our approaches over time. There have been many times when we’ve been set in our ways, but have then realized that we needed to make changes to adapt and grow.
Jennie: Any examples?
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Allyson: I could name so many things, but to pick one, for years we required a letter of recommendation as part of the application. We were looking for ways to get rid of some of the bottlenecks in the application process, and realized this mandatory recommendation letter wasn’t being used very often in the decision process. And students were completely reliant on a third party to submit them. They were mostly there as an indicator of rigor, so instead we decided to have students write a personal statement, which they could do without relying on a third party.
We saw really strong results in the funnel—our completion rate increased by 10% and our admit rate went up by 7%.
But that’s just one example. We’ve evolved pretty significantly over the years.
Jennie: Going back to the beginning of HBU’s graduate enrollment efforts, what were some of the most important early changes?
Allyson: Early on, we had no real central infrastructure. Each academic program handled its own marketing and recruiting functions, which created a lot of inconsistencies that confused prospective students and complicated our internal processes. In 2010, we consolidated into The Graduate School and hired a recruiter that knew every program and could counsel students into the right one for them. We then centralized our application system and streamlined our admissions requirements, including moving the decision-making process into the admissions office.
Another big change at the beginning was revamping the recruitment experience for students. Initially, we were inviting all of our prospects to apply, because that’s how it works in undergrad. But for graduate students, there’s no set timeline that they have to enroll and not everyone was ready to apply right away.
So we built up a pool of deferral leads, which ended up being really successful. They went on to apply at a 75% higher rate than the rest of the pool.
Around the same time, we built a new application that was more streamlined and mobile-optimized. With those changes we saw really substantial enrollment growth in the first few years.
Jennie: But I know that it wasn’t all just smooth sailing after that. Can you speak a little bit about other times when you’ve needed to adapt your strategy?
Allyson: In 2014 our enrollments started to plateau. We realized that as our applicant pool grew, we needed a smarter admissions process through which to manage and guide prospective students. That was when we got rid of the letters of recommendation, in addition to some other operational changes, like redesigning our recruiter territories.
We also needed to add programs to sustain our growth. We used a market analysis that EAB’s Professional and Adult Education Forum completed for us, which compared program offerings against labor market data to find those with the highest-potential. Houston is a very healthcare-centric city, and EAB helped us identify several healthcare-oriented programs that would appeal to local students.
Jennie: How have you kept the forward momentum going since then?
Allyson: Most recently, we’ve turned more attention to our lead generation and targeting strategies. In 2016, we were looking to recruit for several new programs and to expand the reach of some of the existing ones. At the same time, EAB was in the early stages of developing a new audience-creation model using big consumer data.
We partnered with them to understand our students in a way we never could have before. For example, we learned that of the students who enrolled in our grad programs, 81.9% are homeowners, travel is a top interest, and they tend to be more extroverted. Then we used EAB’s consumer database to actually find and target individuals who fit that profile. We also fed that back into our marketing imagery and messaging, and have started to see high-converting inquiries come in.
Jennie: What other advice would you like to share with our readers?
Allyson: Two things. First, be strategic as you think about your program offerings. Second, when you’re designing your recruitment experience, always make the students a priority. It’s really important to develop your processes for the candidate first and operations second. When you consider it from the student’s perspective, there’s so much pulling at their calendars and brains every day, you have to optimize the process for them. And don’t be afraid to send reminders. Adult students need reminders, too!