Graduate student enrollments have expanded dramatically over the past two decades. For many schools, this has felt like a bit of a gold rush, with colleges and universities quickly adding programs and doubling down on recruitment efforts to capture their share of this emerging market. Graduate and professional student enrollments have grown to the point that they accounted for over one quarter of gross tuition revenue at universities in 2019. This trend continued during the early days of the pandemic, with the National Student Clearinghouse reporting that graduate enrollments were up over four percent during 2020, helping to offset a similar decline seen in undergraduate enrollments.
Universities are counting on this boom to continue. But if we look beyond the near future, it’s clear this surge of enrollment is unlikely to continue at its current pace. The same Gen Z demographic contraction that is top-of-mind for today’s undergraduate enrollment managers will soon begin to impact the graduate space. Indeed, the National Center for Education Statistics had forecasted flat growth in graduate student enrollments between now and the end of the decade. We need to be doing more now to prepare for the inevitable tightening of the graduate student market.
We need to turn our attention to graduate student success
As recruitment of new students becomes steadily more difficult, graduate schools must pivot their enrollment strategies to put a greater emphasis on retention and graduation, just as their undergraduate counterparts have already been doing for the last half decade. Most provosts and undergraduate enrollment managers now see their retention efforts as not only the right thing to do for students, but also essential for ensuring the financial health of their institutions.
'How good are we at retaining graduate students right now? In short, we don’t really know. Graduate programs are not subject to federal reporting on retention and completion rates, limiting transparency. What little we do know suggests we have ample room for improvement. For example, a 2013 study of five institutions by the Council of Graduate Schools found that just 66% of STEM master's students completed within four years.
Graduate programs may be surprised to discover how underprepared they are for making this pivot. During the gold rush of the last decade, graduate deans understandably focused their attention on recruitment. Responsibility for student support often fell to individual academic units, many of which lack the scale and budget for big retention initiatives. Students were often left to fend for themselves under the prevailing assumption that graduate students don’t need much help since they’ve already succeeded in college once.
This is a faulty assumption. Many graduate students come directly out of undergrad or are only a few years removed. If these students needed academic, financial, and social support to earn their bachelor’s degrees, it stands to reason that they still need the same support once they enter graduate programs. Other graduate students who are further along in their lives and careers may need help to balance competing family and professional demands along with academic responsibilities, perhaps for the first time.
This combination of under-addressed student support needs and historically limited investment suggests that many graduate programs can register quick gains once they commit to making the pivot to focusing on graduate student success.
3 ways to get started
Recently, I had conversations with nearly two dozen graduate school administrators to learn how they support their students’ success and where they would like to take these efforts in the future. Unsurprisingly, almost none of these schools had developed robust strategies at either the college or university level, and most seemed to be just getting started thinking about the problem. When schools had taken initial actions, they tended to start with these three steps:
1. Define what success means for your graduate students
We most commonly measure undergraduate student success in terms of first-to-second year retention and graduation. As overly simplistic as these metrics might be, they form a common language to track improvement and are directly related to the goal of degree completion. The same can be said for some graduate programs, but not all. For example, law student success is commonly measured by bar passage rate, not graduation. Doctoral programs, which are often designed with attrition in mind, might want to instead put an emphasis on progress and time to degree for students who have advanced to candidacy.
2. Collect, review, and act on the data
During my conversations, I was surprised to find that most graduate programs have only a vague sense of how many of their students were being retained and graduated, something that would be unheard of in the undergraduate space. Many weren’t tracking formal metrics at all, and those that do usually lack a process by which senior leaders review the data and use it to make decisions on improvement. Absent these metrics, it will be impossible for graduate programs to foster a culture of data-informed decision making necessary to thrive in a more competitive environment.
3. Look for opportunities to extend existing undergraduate support services
A handful of the schools with which I spoke are already establishing graduate student support resources modelled off similar resources already deployed to help undergraduates. For example, dozens of EAB partners have added graduate students to the Navigate platform, allowing their advisors and support offices to see the same data for graduate students that they can already access for undergraduates. These were often isolated grassroots efforts, suggesting that a more comprehensive top-down strategy could identify many more opportunities to immediately support graduate students by expanding preexisting services and programs
Graduate students have become a critical source of tuition revenue for modern universities, but our approach to supporting these students feels antiquated. In many ways – from the lack of data collection to the fragmentation of services – our approach to graduate student support today feels as underdeveloped as our approach to undergraduates was twenty years ago. It’s time we made a commensurate investment in ensuring graduate students complete their degrees and get the value out of the investment they make in our schools and programs.
Ready to find out more?
See how National Louis University achieved a 2.9 percentage point increase in their graduate student retention rate.