The pandemic had the potential to weaken an already difficult MBA market: Business degree conferrals have been falling steadily since 2018 and the demand for jobs requesting an MBA fell 34% in the year leading up to the lockdown. As institutions were already questioning the sustainability of this degree, the projected economic downturn—coupled with an overall decline in enrollments across higher ed during COVID and evolving student attitudes—suggested things would only get worse.
While the effects of the pandemic on the MBA market are still crystallizing, our researchers’ analysis of completion data does not offer much hope: In 2020, MBA completions fell 6.6% from the previous year to 112,563. That’s the fewest MBA completions since 2008.
Given these market challenges, it’s more important than ever that business schools develop marketing campaigns that communicate the value of the MBA—and design MBA programs to best meet students’ needs. Here are three strategies you can implement in your MBA recruitment process to keep prospective students engaged and stave off potential declines in applications and enrollments.
1. Intent-based marketing
Intent-based marketing involves delivering messaging to a prospective student at the time when they are most likely to act, responding in real time to their behavior. When it comes to MBA programs, it can take prospective students "anywhere from three days to two years to start an application," a director of admissions told us. Our latest survey of graduate and professional students supports his story. We found that nearly one in three students researches graduate programs for at least 18 months before ever applying. In short, every student's path to enrollment varies, whether they're a career-changer or advancer, a full-time parent or part-time employee, or are just considering their options for the future.
Our research has shown that an intent-based marketing approach allows institutional leaders to use information gathered from prospective students to then serve them tailored messages in response to each of their unique needs, eventually nudging them to apply. “To recruit adult learners, schools need to be hyperresponsive to engagement cues and signals, which requires advanced analytics and the ability to personalize communication at scale,” according to EAB research. The business schools we work with through our Adult Learner Recruitment initiative see an average of 8:1 return on their marketing investments, in part because of intent marketing.
average return on marketing investments of business schools we work with through our Adult Learner Recruitment initiative
2. Outcomes-focused recruitment
Similar to intent-based marketing, outcomes-focused recruitment responds to the desired outcomes of a student pursuing an MBA. Not surprisingly, students seeking an MBA are seeking a concrete return on their educational investment—and to recruit these prospective students effectively, you must acknowledge this reality.
This can be achieved by reiterating your value proposition or offering labor market stats in your marketing communications, for example. Another option is to incorporate student testimonials, program rankings, student outcomes data, or other ratings and reviews in recruitment messages to highlight graduate and program success. By focusing on outcomes, you may even attract the attention of prospects not actively searching for or evaluating programs.
3. Improved program design
To attract prospective students, you first need to create programs that are aligned with market demand. Our researchers suggest analyzing labor market data, including local and regional job postings to identify the skills employers seek the most. Similarly, compare your program offerings to your competitors'—both local and national—to assess how your new or existing programs compare, check that your programs are scalable and optimized for growth, and ensure your credit count and time to completion are reasonable compared to other programs, as institutions have lowered both in recent years.
Next, consider whether your program features are aligned with your prospective students’ preferences and lifestyles. For example, due to the pandemic, there was more than 50% growth in exclusively online MBA programs across the past two years, according to the AACSB report. And 46% of the prospective graduate and professional students we surveyed this summer said they are more likely to consider online learning as a result of their experiences during the pandemic. While it's not surprising that most programs went fully online during COVID, the most competitive programs will continue to offer flexible learning options that better accommodate students' schedules, our research suggests.