University Leaders Are Convinced They Can Boost Graduate Enrollment


University Leaders Are Convinced They Can Boost Graduate Enrollment

Episode 136. January 31, 2023.

Welcome to the Office Hours with EAB podcast. You can join the conversation on social media using #EABOfficeHours. Follow the podcast on Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud and Stitcher or visit our podcast homepage for additional episodes.

EAB’s Beth Donaldson and Kevin Shriner share findings from a new survey of university Presidents, Provosts, and Vice Presidents of Enrollment Management to learn more about their strategy and goals for increasing graduate enrollments. Respondents made it clear this is a significant priority, but they may not have an effective strategy in place to accomplish their goals.

Beth and Kevin examine the state of the market for graduate degrees and identify both best practices and common pitfalls leaders will need to manage in the months ahead.



0:00:13.9 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we dig into findings from a new survey of higher ed leaders to understand how they plan to grow graduate enrollments, and make no mistake, they expect their respective graduate programs to deliver in a big way. But do they have the right strategy and resources to pull it off? Our experts aren't so certain. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:00:45.1 Kevin Shriner: Welcome to our Office Hours with EAB. My name is Kevin Shriner, I'm a Senior Director here at EAB. I get the pleasure of wearing a lot of different hats, working with a lot of different institutions, really in our space around marketing and recruiting and serving today's adult learner. One of the things that I think is important for us to understand though, is the various types of adult learners that we have, the types of students that we're trying to serve. One way that we've kinda looked at this from an EAB perspective is evaluating and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of institutions and how they can compete effectively in today's marketplace.

0:01:24.3 KS: One of the ways that we help institutional leaders and our own team here at EAB is to sharpen the insights by conducting surveys. We do a lot of surveys. Today's conversation is to unpack a recent survey that we just did with university president, provost, vice presidents of enrollment management, to learn more about the strategies and goals around increasing graduate enrollment. And I have the great pleasure of being able to have this conversation today and walk through some of this information with my good colleague, Beth Donaldson. Beth, would you mind introducing yourself to everyone?

0:02:00.7 Beth Donaldson: Yes, thank you, Kevin. I'm Beth Donaldson. And I serve as the Managing Director of Adult Learning Consulting Services at EAB. In my role, I really help to support our partners as they develop enrollment strategies that will help them to increase their market share and enrollment of adult students, and as they think about how they can have new initiatives to really enhance the student experience and really impact the return on education for their students.

0:02:33.2 KS: Great. So one of the things we wanna talk about is the survey that your team recently completed. And I know as a former institutional researcher, understanding the goals and objectives of those surveys is really important for the audience to kind of understand where we're going. Could you take just a couple of moments and explain the goal and design of the survey? And then what particular questions you were trying to answer?

0:02:55.3 BD: Sure. So in this particular survey, we really wanted to do a polls check to see how senior leaders in higher education were really positioning themselves in the graduate and adult education space. We know that graduate education and enrollment is becoming really more important for vice presidents and presidents, but we really wanted to get a sense of how they were positioning them in their strategic plan, and institutional plans, as well as the program offerings that they were considering for their adult students.

0:03:30.4 KS: I think, one of the things I think is interesting in today's enrollment cycles, we're starting to see a little bit of an uptick with the pandemic with Covid and somewhat of a recession. So the enrolment is kinda up and down. They're kinda all over the place. But what I've seen, and I think you've heard some of the same conversations, is that a lot of times, we go in and we talk to college presidents or provost and realize that their goals and their objectives for trying to increase enrollments is maybe double what it was last semester or last year, or they're trying to figure out how to really gain some ground in this market. And I'm just curious, do you see that type of a trend continuing where people are gonna want outsized growth for their schools?

0:04:20.7 BD: Yes, Kevin. You've really hit the nail right on the head. We're really seeing that this trend is continuing. In the survey, we found that 100% of the presidents that responded indicated that graduate, specifically an adult learner education was a strong or moderate priority for them. You mentioned about double digits, and that's exactly what we're finding. Institutions that have experienced a real decline in undergraduate enrollment are really relying heavily on graduate education to balance their revenue and to really be able to make sure that they're seeing the budget growth that they need at their institutions. I think when you're thinking about double-digit growth, it really is a problem because all institutions are really chasing that goal, and we know that clearly there are gonna be some winners and some losers in the race to be able to increase your market share of adult and graduate students.

0:05:26.2 KS: Yeah, and I think what's interesting is we're all trying to chase that idea of getting more enrollments, but I'm also seeing the news where higher ed is struggling to keep people employed and people are starting to think about other areas to work. How do you think schools are gonna be able to meet those goals if they're not able to manage their own staffing?

0:05:52.3 BD: So that is the million-dollar question. I think for the most part, what we've seen in the survey is that institutions, almost half percent of those that responded said that by developing new programs, they think that that's going to help them to meet their enrollment, really goals in their plan. And they really felt confident that they were able to do this, right? As well as being able to increase their market share of under-represented groups, students who historically not attended graduate programs, and then thinking about their ability to really grow their market outside of their primary market. And so leaders were confident that they could grow their secondary market, new areas as well as attract more international students.

0:06:43.3 KS: Yeah. And I think the whole idea of under-represented students, international students... I've shared a lot in some of the conversations that I've had that we really became non-white majority in fall of 2017 about the undergraduate and the graduate level, and so there's definitely some interest from a lot of students to continue their education, and I think there's a huge opportunity for schools to really start to tap into that. But going back to the survey, I'm just like... What did you like, what surprised you about this? 'Cause I'm surprised at 100% of people that responded want growth, so that's a shocking piece to me.

0:07:24.3 BD: Yeah, I think what surprised... That surprised me, but also it also surprised me how so many of the respondents really believe that just focusing on a few areas would get them there. Expanding their course offerings in the allied health area and business. And then secondarily areas such as nursing and the sciences really were ways in which they felt would be key drivers. They were prioritizing head count, but not prioritizing the need of the resources or staff needed to meet those goals. And that's what really surprised me and that, really, we know that execution depends on what you input into those efforts.

0:08:06.0 BD: And so really being able to have the staff to reach out to students, the resources to market students were really not heavily on the minds of the leaders that were responding at that point in time. So really thinking about how these leaders are asking themselves about how they create the plan that they really need to be able to pull this off, right? And be as such their other competitors who are also thinking that those areas are the way in which they're also going to be able to reach their enrollment goals.

0:08:41.1 KS: Yeah. To me, that was really interesting that allied health and business programs and nursing programs bubbled up as a place of interest for a lot of these schools, because that's also the place where we've just seen growth across the past five, six years that you would think they'd start to start to look at areas outside of that, what is something unique? What's something different in their marketplace? But then just the idea that people are wanting to launch new programs in these areas. In some of these...

0:09:12.2 KS: So I've shared with other folks, my daughter did her bachelor's degree in communication sciences disorder, which was a pathway to do her Master's in speech language pathology, which caps enrollments. Many of those programs can't accept more students. The medical field cannot accept more students. They're all capped by this growth. And so to try to go these different areas and not have capacity, how do you think schools are gonna be able to accomplish that growth if they're just thinking the program is the right thing to do, but not the infrastructure of the program?

0:09:48.7 BD: Yeah, I think you're exactly right. Really looking at their academic portfolio and making sure that the programs that they're offering meet the labor demand and have the capacity to grow. One way really to deal with that challenge is by providing more of your classes online. We know that adult learners want the flexibility of being able to get their degree. And so it meets the needs of the students, as well as any capacity issues that the institution might be facing as well. And then really thinking about all of your programs in terms of your hybrid programs, how you engage students, how in your online offering, students are able to network because the student themselves are looking for the opportunity to develop their skills and to ensure that they have a return on education. So your outcomes have to be there so that you have a competitive advantage against the other schools that are in your area providing the same level of education.

0:10:50.1 KS: So in thinking about that, what can a school who's trying to expand really be able to do to ensure that their course offerings are gonna be acceptable or people are gonna want to enroll in their programs?

0:11:07.9 BD: Yeah, that's such a great question. Institutions have to make sure that the quality of education is there, first and foremost, and that the outcomes are strong for their students. Really thinking about your competition, what they're offering in terms of the program, and then the tuition differences that may exist between you and the schools that your students are also considering. Really making sure that you have faculty buy-in in terms of being able to understand the importance of the student, experience that they're providing to students, but also buy-in in terms of the delivery of courses.

0:11:46.4 BD: Online, as I mentioned before, really key and important, how they may have high flex and utilize that. And so institutions have to think about the resources that are needed for that, as we talked about earlier. In terms of instructional design, to be able to deliver more online courses, staff to be able to build effective communication and recruitment plans, and then really thinking, I think holistically about the organizational structure, which can also be a challenge. If it's a decentralized or centralized model for recruitment, is really something that institutions have to think about because who owns graduate and an adult education really can then stipulate how quickly you can grow and the results that you see.

0:12:34.6 KS: Which I think is really interesting when we start, when some of the respondents in the survey really talked about your competition from other universities, how are we gonna compete in this space? And I think kind of what you're alluding to, what is your budget? How you restructure? And all those types of things. But do you have any tips on thinking about how to evaluate your competition and how do you set yourself apart from your competition?

0:13:00.9 BD: Yeah, I think it's really key and important to understand clearly what are the skill sets that you're offering students versus your competitors, right? How you recruit students, but also how you onboard students. How you support students in ways that may be different than your competitors, being able to understand it, enhance those areas that you may see are not as strong as your competitors, and then being able to articulate those benefits very clearly to students so that you can show your competitive advantage, so key and important in the work that you're doing to increase your market share.

0:13:40.5 KS: So I know about you and I spend a lot of time talking to schools about peers versus competitors. So when you think about this survey and what provosts and presidents have said about trying to grow. How do you have that conversation with them about who is someone for them to be a peer with, who should they look at to say, "We wanna emulate that type of institution"? And how do they evaluate the peers? How do they separate those two groups in order to meet their goals of what they're trying to do?

0:14:13.6 BD: I think it's so key and important to... This is a great question because you're exactly right. Who you overlap with today are your competitors, right? But who you want to be in the future are your peers and aspirational. And so clearly understanding of your applicant pool and inquiry pool where other students are considering, as we talked about the programs, identifying students and the reasons why they're going to those other institutions, so that you can see that you can adjust that. Sometimes it may be about academic program, a lot of times students will say value, and by that they don't necessarily mean that the tuition costs are high, but what are the outcomes of your experience with them? And then being able to set them clear goals of who you want to be competing against three to five years from now in terms of our aspirational peers, are so key, right? And it's about not just your academics, but the quality of the experience that students are having at your institution.

0:15:20.5 KS: And that last part, I think was a real big key. So how do you ensure the students are getting from your program what you want for them to get from the program? And I think we think about that a lot from an undergraduate education. Like, how do undergrad students engage? How are they part of campus? How do they feel like they're involved? And I think sometimes... And you've been doing graduate admissions and marketing and all that, probably a little bit longer than I have from a standpoint of that was your day-to-day was being in the graduate space, but... And this is probably a little bit off of what we did with the survey, but I think your insight to this is really important. Just how do we help schools understand the engagement aspects of graduate and adult students, especially in the online environment, that they actually need to understand if they're gonna try to meet these goals going forward?

0:16:20.7 BD: You're exactly right, Kevin. The needs of graduate students have changed so dramatically. I think when we take a look at the space 10 or 15 years ago, students wanted to get their degree and then be able to either get a promotion in the field or change careers. Now, not in this survey but in other surveys that we've just recently conducted, adult students are saying that they also want a level of support 24/7. They want the support of tutoring that may be to develop their analytical skills so that they can pursue a graduate program in data analytics. It could also be in terms of career services.

0:17:01.1 BD: They wanna be able to have internships and Capstone projects that help them to develop their skills, and graduate students also may need mental health support. And so if they are taking your programs in person or online, really thinking strategically about how you can provide that level of support and belongings for students. Because it's so key and important, even though a student is online, they still wanna interact with their peers in the course. Also students within other disciplines, and of course, their faculty are key drivers of their level of satisfaction with this program that they're enrolled in.

0:17:42.3 KS: Yeah. All the insights that you provide, Beth, I think are just amazing in a standpoint of what you're able to do with schools that you work with, your peers and colleagues. I'm sure you get calls from people EAB doesn't work with from this space of, hey, I was thinking about doing this, and I wanna get your insights, just because you have such a grasp of what today's adult student is going through. And I think that's really important, not only for the schools that we work with, but just in general as a thought leader in higher education, I think you add so much value to the things that we're doing. One question that I also have, it's a little bit not in the survey, but just how do certificates, micro-credentials and those types of things kind of play into this growth opportunity that we've seen come out of these results?

0:18:36.4 BD: Yeah. We definitely have seen leaders respond that they're interested in getting into that space. We do know that there are so many other providers outside of education that are doing this work and probably doing it at a lower cost than institutions. And the areas really of focus have been business and technology, and so institutions are thinking about how they can provide either certificates in their non-credit area, or really thinking about how they may be able to develop stackable credentials. So being able to implement or deploy graduate certificates that may lead into the master's, being able to provide this as post-baccalaureate opportunities for undergraduate students or even graduate students, right?

0:19:24.2 BD: Because we have seen an increase in students who are already... Or have already had a master's degree now applying for a second master's degree. Right? And so thinking about, strategically about your academic offerings, does it make sense to have a graduate certificate or program for students to change a career or upscale within their current and existing career? And I think as we think about this in terms of the future, finding areas where we in education may have a competitive advantage over other vendors, right? That might be in the business space, it could potentially be in education as well, or even healthcare, which is a totally different direction that currently exists in the alternative credential space. So really being innovative in our approach to this work going forward.

0:20:19.7 KS: And I think that's a really important piece is the innovation. Higher ed, I think kinda gets a bad rap every once in a while. "They're slow to do things. It takes them so long to make decisions." Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's a bad thing. Taking your time, evaluating everything and using the data to make a decision, but then they can also be seen as they're not reacting to their marketplace, they're not reacting to their students or their community, and the things that they're doing. Would you say that it's really important for schools now to have a much stronger connection with their communities than say previously, when we've been trying to put these programs together?

0:21:00.6 BD: Most definitely. You want to be able to use your faculty expertise to really be able to connect with industry leaders in your local market, to find out specifically what they're looking for in terms of employees and then supporting professional development for their existing workforce. And so thinking strategically about how you can customize some of your programs, offer those courses on site, offer them online, and then being able to predict by talking to these leaders what is needed three to five years from now, right? None of us could have possibly predicted the pandemic and the importance of being able to pivot on a dime to online instruction, do the work that we do very differently. And so it's so important for us to be thinking about what we can provide in the future to potential students that we want to enroll.

0:22:00.1 KS: For people who've made it this far in the podcast, I'm gonna do something that will put you on the spot a little bit. If you were to choose three... And I know this is a very broad question, it's not necessarily in the ballpark for every institution. But if you were to choose three programs that you think have marketability, market upside going forward for the next two to three years, what would be a couple of programs that you would say schools, if they're not investing in that... And outside of a generic business or like we have in some of the survey results. But what would be a program? What would be a program that you would say you should really think hard about putting this into your portfolio?

0:22:48.4 BD: Yeah, that's a tough question. I think not necessarily programs, but the skill development. I think the data analytics piece is really key and important because... And you can be able to use that in a variety of different ways and create synergies across the institution. Because in our prior work, we found that students really care or are drawn to Interdisciplinary Studies because they feel as though those programs will give them a variety of skills and make them more marketable in the workplace. So really thinking about how we're able to train students to think differently, to work smarter, not harder in the work that they do.

0:23:36.2 BD: We have seen a big, as you know, increase in healthcare administration. And so I think, thinking holistic about how we can do that differently and train leaders in healthcare, that's so key and important. And then I also think lastly, education, finding ways in which programs can develop teachers to deal with the holistic need of the student as we've seen such an increase, right, in students being diagnosed on the spectrum. And so how can we support and care for students that really need that and train teachers or counselors or leaders to be able to support that work?

0:24:19.1 KS: That's great. Those are some great little nuggets that is gonna be a surprise for someone that listens to this and make it all the way through, they're gonna be like, oh my gosh, I am glad I listened to Kevin and Beth today to hear what's going on because we just got three nuggets of some things that we should be doing. So back to the survey, how do you, really, what should institutional leaders be doing differently than they are today to help them succeed going forward?

0:24:50.3 BD: Sure. I think key and important is really being realistic about how quickly they can see graduate enrollment growth. I love the fact that institutions are focused on adult learners, but thinking that you can grow double digits without the resources needed to do that is not very realistic in the short-term. Thinking holistically about the academic programs that you're offering today. Do they have brand recognition? Are they strong with their outcomes? Because the reality is, is that you want to win in this space and have a competitive advantage in this space. And then really thinking about new programs, we know that the work needed to launch new program is intense, and the results for actually seeing enrollment for new programs is not instantaneous.

0:25:44.5 BD: And so thinking about strategically which are the right programs, do you have the faculty expertise? Do you have the labor demand that will support it as well to provide outcomes for your students? And then I think lastly, really taking a hard look at your staffing and resources that you have dedicated to this important strategic goal. Being able to think about growing your internal team, or also thinking creatively about outsourcing to an external partner that could provide you with the much needed expertise and staff support to be able to see results in a shorter time frame. So those are...

0:26:28.6 KS: Yeah, those are great. And so I think a lot of this survey ties into a lot of work that we've done around graduate enrollment management and how to really, to your point, think about the organization, think about your structure. Adding a program doesn't necessarily mean growth, you have to create the program, you have to create the infrastructure, you have to have all of those things in place to make it be successful. So I just, Beth, thank you so much for spending time with us today and talking about this important topic. And thank you for giving me some latitude to kinda put you on the spot and pick your brain and see what you think is gonna happen on the horizon and how things are going to change and improve for our institutions. And I hope sometime in the future you can come back and we can pick your brain on another topic.

0:27:16.1 BD: Thanks so much for having me, Kevin. I would love to come back and talk more. And you can put me on the spot any time.

0:27:22.3 KS: That sounds great, thank you.


0:27:30.9 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us again next week when our experts explain why prison inmates could be an important target market for your institution starting this summer. Until next week, thank you for your time.


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