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How to use marketing to engage program-switchers

Graduate and adult students apply outside their program of interest more often than you think

November 20, 2023 , By Emily Upton, Vice President, Program Marketing for ALR and General Manager, Agency Services

It can be tough for enrollment leaders to know exactly how to market to and communicate with prospective graduate and adult students, which is why we make a continued effort to demystify these students’ behaviors through our research. To give our partners more insight into this audience, we recently conducted an analysis of the behavior of more than 4,400 students across 18 Adult Learner Recruitment partners to learn whether, and how often, students change their program of interest between filling out a lead generation form and completing an application.

We found that a surprising number of students end up applying to schools outside of their initial program of interest.

This makes enrollment marketers’ jobs challenging. Marketing to students by program of interest sounds like a good idea, but with the knowledge that many students apply to programs outside their original program of interest, how can marketers know what messaging will be most effective? Here are three conclusions from our analysis.

1. Adult learners are applying outside of their original program of interest frequently.

Nearly 25% of graduate applicants included in our study applied outside of the program of interest they first selected. Even more dramatically, over 50% of adult degree completer students are applying outside of their selected program of interest. These numbers show that program-switching is more than something to watch out for—it’s so common that if institutions only market based on program of interest, they are missing the opportunity to provide effective messaging for a large part of their audience.

2. Graduate test-taker names are most likely to remain within their indicated program of interest, compared to other lead types.

This may seem intuitive—our latest Graduate and Adult Learner Survey found that 61% of surveyed students who took a graduate admissions test knew what programs they were going to apply to prior to taking it. That means those students are further down in the funnel and are likely applying because they know that one or more of the programs they are interested in require test scores.

Unfortunately, since test-taker name availability continues to decrease, it’s difficult to expect many of your leads will fall into the above pool. Our survey found that nearly 25% of students had no plan to take an admissions test, and from 2017 to 2021, the number of domestic GRE test-takers dropped 44% and the number of domestic GMAT test takers decreased by 54%. If your institution is looking to widen your funnel to find leads elsewhere, it’s important to know how to nurture and engage students who might not apply within their program of interest.

Evaluate how effectively your team is using lead scores

3. The duration of a prospect’s research phase has a relatively small impact on the likelihood of changing program choice.

It would be wrong to mistake program-switching as a phenomenon that only occurs among students that stay in the search process for a long time. Of graduate students who applied three months after indicating a program of interest, around 30% changed their minds. Of students who applied after two years or more, about 25% changed their minds—showing relatively little variation despite a significantly longer search timeline. Among degree completers, accuracy of program of interest surpassed 50%, but rates decreased again after the one-year mark. This data shows that even if you know you get a lot of applicants who move through the funnel quickly, this may not correlate to having fewer program-switcher applicants. Programs need to be prepared to have a considerable number of their students change their mind about what program to pursue at some point in the funnel.

How to engage program-switchers

The data clearly illustrates how prevalent program-switching is—so what’s the best way to connect with program-switchers through marketing?

1. Build effective lead nurture campaigns that, regardless of a student’s intended program, keep them engaged with your institution. Students expect personalized communication, but that doesn’t stop with their intended area of study. Think about other areas you may be able to personalize around, such as level of experience or location.

2. Consider promoting other, broader value adds that your program has, like year-round start times, multiple modality options, or a short time to completion. Promote social proof content, such as alumni testimonials, that can speak to positive student outcomes and help prospective students picture themselves succeeding in your program.

How well are you nurturing students from lead to applicant?

3. Answer students’ pragmatic questions. Graduate and adult students have many concerns about going back to school that must be addressed, regardless of what program they are interested in. At EAB, we have adopted this approach across our work in Appily Advance, especially in our work with adult degree completers—an audience in which program-switching is very common. Instead of engaging degree completers primarily through program of interest, we ask Appily’s degree completion users to complete a quiz that provides each student with a personalized back-to-school plan and answers to common questions about continuing their education. This engages students with highly sought-after information and helps encourage them to pursue their academic goals—while recognizing the distinct paths that degree completers often take in their return to school.

As we continue to learn more about program-switching among graduate and degree completion applicants, I am excited to share those developments. In today’s competitive market, I hope this data can assist enrollment leaders in connecting with hard-to-find leads and market to them effectively.

Emily Upton

Emily Upton is a vice president for marketing and enrollment solutions and general manager for agency services at EAB with extensive experience in all aspects of creative, digital, web strategy, audience research and campaign development. Emily specializes in direct marketing recruitment campaign services for Higher Education clients. Her work supports college-bound populations through best-of-its-kind student success marketing campaigns that match students to right-fit colleges using collective power of over 300 higher educational institutions to generate insights.

Emily spends her day testing, analyzing, and refining strategic marketing plans and programs to help partners stay relevant and successful in a highly competitive market.

In her spare time, Emily enjoys reading, the outdoors, and international travel. Emily’s current favorite poem is A Psalm of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and her favorite outdoor activity is kayaking. Next upon Emily’s travel destination is southern France.

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