Like my enrollment management colleagues, I have spent many sleepless nights turning over enrollment numbers in my head. Will we meet our class? What will melt look like? What will our class composition look like?
While my outlook on these questions has certainly changed year-to-year (hello, demographic cliffs, recessions, and global pandemics), one challenge I faced every year is setting enrollment goals that are both realistic and aligned to our university’s strategic plan and revenue needs. Now, in my role as Managing Director in EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment division, I consistently hear from our partners: how can I set goals at a time when enrollments are so in flux?
Setting grad enrollment goals comes with its own set of challenges
In my 25-plus years in enrollment management, I’ve found it especially difficult to set goals at the graduate level. In fact, in our recent survey of presidents, provosts, and VPEMs, respondents identified “setting enrollment goals” as their top operational challenge for grad teams in the last three years. Given these challenges, some schools I’ve worked with don’t set grad enrollment goals at all.
In my experience, setting enrollment goals for graduate programs is especially challenging for four reasons:
Graduate programs often lack the centralized infrastructure that facilitates (relatively) straightforward decision-making for undergraduate enrollment. At the grad level, enrollment goals could be set at the college, department, or even program level. This makes it difficult to create university-wide objectives for graduate programs.
As you’ve likely experienced first-hand, faculty teaching graduate courses may be incentivized to prioritize research over expanding their teaching load. And faculty may, rightfully, be concerned that expanding the size of their classes could negatively impact student experience or lead your institution to enroll students who do not meet a certain academic standard. For these reasons, faculty might have an outsized role in determining enrollment capacity.
One of my favorite parts of working with graduate schools is the variety of programs offered and students served. For example, students may be enrolled part-time, work as university employees or at a corporate partner, or completing a 4+1 program. But this variety makes it challenging to set enrollment goals as these factors can impact net tuition revenue calculations (more on that below).
EAB’s resident IPEDS experts often lament that the admissions, enrollment, and retention data that is readily accessible for undergraduate programs is not available for grad programs. This can make it difficult to understand enrollment trends at competitor and peer institutions.
But setting—and achieving—grad enrollment goals has never been more important
Despite these challenges, setting revenue and headcount goals is a critical first step to growing enrollment—especially at a time when institutions are depending more and more on revenue from graduate programs. In our survey of grad enrollment leaders earlier this year, 46% of respondents said their college or university is increasingly relying on NTR from graduate programs to offset undergrad enrollment deficits. Our researchers only expect this reliance on grad enrollment to grow as the rate of would-be undergraduate students opting out of higher ed increases.
Then, of course, there are the challenges within the graduate market itself. According to NSC projections, total graduate enrollment fell 1% in fall 2022. This marks the first decline in graduate enrollment since the start of the pandemic. Graduate enrollment is expected to grow in the coming years, but at a slower rate than we have become accustomed to. This means that the pressure on graduate enrollment is growing at a time when it is becoming more challenging to grow grad enrollment and revenue.
Setting effective enrollment goals starts with data
Establishing enrollment goals for your graduate programs starts with an honest assessment of your internal data, as well as a review of relevant external data. It’s key to set grad goals in terms of revenue rather than sheer headcount. While our colleagues focused on undergrad enrollment might set goals primarily in terms of headcount, focusing on headcount at the grad level will overlook the important differences across programs and students—each of which impact the NTR from these students and your bottom line.
To help your team set enrollment goals, we’ve outlined each of these five steps in greater detail in this playbook. At a glance, here are the five steps key to setting enrollment goals:
- Assess your current and historical enrollment: Prioritize a close review of your historical enrollment, with a focus on historical net tuition revenue. This will require a close look at total annual tuition and fees, based on your enrollment, student credit hours, tuition rates, fees, and retention rates. You’ll also need to consider discounts, such as scholarships and grants.
- Determine resource requirements: As most teams tasked with growing grad enrollment will tell you, the staff and resources allocated to graduate programs don’t always keep pace with the pressures to grow revenue. When setting revenue and enrollment goals, consider the expenses associated with operating—and potentially—growing your grad programs. These include faculty and staff salaries and benefits and marketing and recruitment expenses, among others.
- Analyze labor market and competitor data: Not all markets hold an equal opportunity to grow graduate enrollment. A review of local and regional labor market data, along with an analysis of census data like educational attainment in your state, can shed light on the market opportunity in your area. Supplement this labor market and population data with a deep dive into conferrals data via IPEDS, which your team is likely already using to understand market saturation and changes in your competitive landscape over time.
- Understand your current and ideal student types: While the tuition revenue a college or university receives from an undergraduate student varies primarily by a student’s place of residence, the tuition and fees a graduate student pays also fluctuates based on whether the student is enrolled full- or part-time, works at the institution, or is enrolled via a corporate partnership, among other factors. Consider the make up of your current and historical graduate students, including enrollment status, residency, university employment status, and more to set realistic enrollment and revenue goals.
- Monitor progress towards goal: After establishing your goals, assess progress towards these goals regularly. This step-by-step guide includes some of the metrics enrollment leaders should monitor, including credit hours produced, data throughout the enrollment funnel, and program outcomes.
The future of the graduate market is uncertain. But a close assessment of the data points outlined above is a necessary starting point in setting revenue and headcount targets for your team, no matter the forecast.
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