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Your future graduate students will be increasingly hard to find. Here’s why.

Insights from EAB’s new survey of 2,000+ graduate and adult learners

November 22, 2021, By Tess Arena, Director, Product Marketing

Perhaps the most common question I hear from schools looking to bolster graduate enrollment is: “How do I find more students?” But as graduate enrollment leaders know all too well, the current decline in undergraduate students spells future declines in the number of potential graduate students. And students’ long and non-linear journeys to grad school make it even harder to find and recruit prospects.

Here is what our survey of 2,000+ future graduate and adult learners tells us about why it will only become more difficult to identify students in the coming years.


Students are increasingly stealth shopping on your website

This year’s survey findings further reinforced what we’ve long known about prospective graduate and adult learners: these students are especially likely to be “stealth shoppers,” or unknown to your institution until they actually apply. Prospective students are increasingly relying on your website more than any other source—including friends, family, and peers—to learn more about going back to school. Fifty-seven percent of the students we surveyed said they used school websites when researching programs, followed by graduate program search sites (55 percent) and web searches (50 percent).


  • 57%

    of surveyed students use school websites when researching programs

The students who rely on university websites to explore their options also told us that their experience with a university website can make or break their decision to apply. Nearly 90 percent of respondents said that a well-designed website will improve their opinion of a school. Conversely, 85 percent said a poorly designed website will negatively impact their opinion. And ultimately, 63 percent said they will abandon a school website all together if the site isn’t user-friendly.

So how can you ensure students not only come across your website early in their search, but also linger on your site and leave with a positive impression of your institution?

  • Deploy Highly Engaging Content with Prospective Students’ Intent in Mind

    Where possible, ensure content on your .edu is fully immersive, interactive, and focused on the student. Content should also be optimized for the growing number of students who research academic programs on mobile devices.

  • Prioritize Search Engine Optimization and Site Hygiene

    Use keyword-rich introductory copy, deliberate site dominance strategies, and headers and meta tags to drive traffic to and across your webpages.

  • Use Inquiry-Generating Features and Audience Insights to Boost Conversion

    Generate inquiries from your .edu page through clear calls to action with predictive next steps based on user behavior. Use audience insights to enable your team to customize content based on student interest and behaviors.

Finally, make sure prospective students can easily find the information they need. Our survey indicates students most often use university websites to find information about programs offered, admissions requirements and processes, and costs. For ease of access, include this important information not only on centralized pages (such as your college or university tuition page), but also on specific program landing pages, where students are most likely to search for information.

Students are spending time researching, not applying

The journey to enrollment continues to be long and meandering for many graduate and adult learners. One in three students we surveyed said they have researched programs 18 months or longer. This is especially true of prospective students age 35 and over and adult degree completers, many of whom spend years sporadically researching programs before a more concerted effort to explore and apply to programs. For enrollment leaders, these findings reiterate the value of marketing to prospective students who may not have engaged with your emails or other marketing materials recently.


  • 27%

    of students searched for information about going back to school for 18 months or longer

When it comes time to apply, prospective graduate and adult learners remain highly focused on a short list of programs. Forty-one percent of the students we surveyed applied to just two or fewer schools. Given this trend, it’s important your marketing emphasizes your institution’s specific value proposition and the ways in which you are uniquely positioned to meet students’ needs.

Our survey suggests one reason that graduate and adult learners are applying to just a couple of institutions is because of application and admissions requirements. More so than in previous years, our survey findings indicate students are opting not to apply to a specific school or program because of an application requirement. Students of color and students 25 and over most often said that an application or admissions requirement deterred them from enrolling—which further suggest that unnecessary prerequisites may hurt efforts to enroll and support students from underserved groups. The students we surveyed most often identified application fees and GPA prerequisites as factors that deterred them from applying.


My program waiving the application fee and GRE requirement is what interested me in applying.


Survey Respondent

Fewer and fewer students are taking graduate admissions tests

The pandemic only amplified debates among university leaders about the validity and necessity of admissions tests. But the response we received from surveyed students was clear: the widespread relaxation or elimination of test score requirements was a welcome benefit of the pandemic.


COVID caused the elimination of the GRE requirement…For all of the bad, COVID created equity in the graduate school application process.


Survey Respondent


Because the GRE and other requirements were waived, it was much easier for me to apply.


Survey Respondent


Twenty-nine percent of the students we surveyed said they do not plan to take an admissions test, as compared to just 10 percent of students surveyed last year. Students also identified the lack of test requirements as more important in their decisions about where to apply this year than they did last year. Of the students who did complete graduate admissions tests, 64 percent said they knew where they would be applying prior to taking the test—suggesting they may have only taken a test because a particular program of interest required scores.


  • 29%

    of survey respondents said they do not plan to take a graduate admissions test

Although the extent to which programs drop test requirements post-pandemic remains to be seen, early indicators—and my conversations with our Adult Learner Recruitment partners—suggest that this trend will persist. And, as the number of students taking admissions tests declines, enrollment leaders know they will need to expand the sources they use to identify prospective students. As my colleague and audience generation whiz Abby Zeiler explained, “It’s critical to balance saturating known markets and identifying new, productive lead sources while ensuring you are as efficient with marketing dollars as possible.” To maximize lead volume and quality, tap into existing sources—such as your institution’s inquiry pool, current undergrads, and young alumni—and consider new sources to pilot, like Appily Advance.


Given these trends, and the aggressive enrollment goals set forth for many leaders of graduate and adult-serving programs, it’s critical that institutions shore up strategies to curate a pool of future graduate students now.

Tess Arena

Director, Product Marketing

Read Bio

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