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Graduate Admissions Teams Are Close to the Breaking Point

Episode 109

June 21, 2022 36 minutes


Keith Ramsdell, VP of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Ashland University and a NAGAP Board member, joins EAB’s Pam Royall to discuss the findings of a new joint survey of graduate admissions leaders.

The two highlight things that institutions should be doing differently to recruit students and staff, including giving staff greater flexibility and diversifying their graduate program portfolio to better align with workforce trends.



0:00:11.2 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. Our guests today breakdown findings from a new survey of graduate admissions professionals that should cause institutional leaders to sit up and take notice. Long seen as a key growth driver for universities, graduate enrolments actually declined this Spring, and simply asking staff to do more with less is not the right answer. The survey showed nearly half of graduate admissions professionals are already stressed to the max, and thinking about leaving their jobs. Our guests today touch on several steps that institutions can take to retain and support staff, so give them a listen, and enjoy.

0:00:57.2 Pam Royall: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours With EAB. My name is Pam Royall. I am Head of Research for the enrollment business at EAB. And today, I’m joined by my research partner in the work that we have done with NAGAP over the course of the pandemic, almost two full years of research that we’ve conducted in the form of eight different flash polls. I’m going to tell you a little bit about that. But first, let me introduce Keith Ramsdell. Keith is VP of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Ashland University, and he serves on NAGAP’s board. I wanna welcome Keith but also asked him to tell you a little bit more about NAGAP and our partnership.

0:01:42.6 Keith Ramsdell: Great. Thanks, Pam. It’s a pleasure to be here today. I’m so excited. We’ve done a lot of work here together. I’ll just tell you a little bit about NAGAP. NAGAP is the professional association for graduate enrollment management. And we are the only organization exclusively dedicated to the concerns of those working in graduate enrollment management. And so, this has been an exciting, challenging, but exciting past two years. I mean, what really brought us together was the pandemic. And we certainly wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but what has come out of that is a very rich and really a huge blessing for our members and the graduate enrolment management profession, our partnership with EAB. And, we’ve done several events together now, you, me, our colleague, Donald Resnick and others, that have really produced some great research in very trying time. So we appreciate that. EAB is not our only partner. We have several different partners, and different research topics. But I think that these flash polls that you talked about, these multiple flash polls, Pam, have really provided some great information, some great data for gem professionals during some very challenging times.

0:03:04.8 PR: I agree, Keith. I think what has been in my top line summary is that we’ve looked at how COVID is shaping the future of graduate enrollment management. And what surface through these eight flash polls of those that are doing the work is that there are some serious challenges and they’re related to the staff mental health, the staffing shortages, the extreme workload, there are also challenges due to the shifts we’ve all had to make with the hybrid environments. There’s also, I must say, in what students, prospective graduate students expect in their online and on campus graduate experiences. So hopefully, we will have a chance to talk about some of those.

0:04:00.0 PR: I’m just going to take a minute to outline the nature of these flash polls. The first one was launched in September of 2020. And a year later, while we had some intervening polls, a year later, we asked some of the same questions about what was happening with enrollment, what was happening in terms of enrollment strategy and recruitment tactics. And we got a good sense of what people were feeling in terms of these pressures that I alluded to earlier. So we’re gonna think about what we can share today across those eight polls that explored a variety of different topics. And I also just wanna say that I’m delighted that our partnership is gonna continue so we’ll have more data. [chuckle]

0:04:54.6 KR: Absolutely.

0:04:55.1 PR: And we’ll be able to look at some trends. So let’s dig in to some of the research results. And let me just ask you, Keith, what did you find most surprising in our findings?

0:05:08.9 KR: Well, that’s a great question, Pam. And I would say, from my perspective, I mean, there were lots of things I think that, as we put questions out there, those of us who were reviewing those numbers as they were hot off the press, if you will, that weren’t a huge surprise. I think the thing that was a huge surprise to all of us was the percentage of graduate enrollment management professionals, Gem professionals, who were saying, I’m at least considering if not pursuing work different from what I’m doing right now, maybe on another college campus, maybe outside of the industry altogether. I think we were all shocked by how high those numbers were.

0:05:51.9 PR: You’re right Keith, it was 46%. And I would just want to emphasize, at this point, something I should have spoke to earlier, we talked to, through these surveys, over 1200 graduate enrollment professionals. So we’re talking about a real significant group of professionals making up this sample and very generalizable in terms of the results. And to your point, of those 46%, 14% indicated they’re considering leaving higher education, which is really dramatic in my estimation. Yeah, Keith, I’d like to hear a little bit about your experience. What’s happened…

0:06:36.1 KR: Pam, I think… There are those trends across the country that we’ve seen, and that I’ve heard from some of my NAGAP colleagues, but also, what I’ll speak to you right now is just even on my own campus, is the number of people who have left our enrollment management division at Ashland. And to your point, as we looked at the results here, a very high percentage of those who left, left the industry. They did not choose to go to a different position on this campus or any other campus. The pressures, the anxiety that goes along with higher ed right now, in particular in the enrollment management world, is just so extreme. And you’ve heard me say this before, and I will come back to this time and time again, I’ve been in this role at Ashland now for a year and a half. I’ve been in enrollment management for almost 30 years, in graduate enrollment management, in particular, for almost half of my career. And I’ve never seen anything like this.

0:07:42.1 KR: And my expectation was, coming into a vice presidential role, that I was going to be looking at things from a very strategic perspective, looking at ways to engage and challenge team members. And in reality, what I found is, right now, our team members need a cheerleader, they need somebody who just listens to what their concerns are. And in many cases, Pam, those are not concerns about work. Those are concerns about home, about family, about I have a friend who has COVID or I have a friend who… Whatever it is, and, as we continue to lose people from the industry, that’s one of the few things we can do. In many cases, right now, we can’t pay them more, we’re all cash strapped. But what we can do is demonstrate the fact that we really are concerned about them as individuals, and making sure that we’re doing everything we can to support the team that we already have.

0:08:44.9 PR: Right. And Keith, some of your comments made me think about the fact that not only do you not have time to just focus on strategy, you probably have to do more of the work that you would typically give to somebody that was working for you, or alongside you rather than you doing it yourself.

0:09:03.4 KR: Yeah, that’s exactly right.

0:09:06.0 PR: When we think about the things that we can do to provide support, in addition to just the wise counsel and the sympathetic ear and the cheerleading, what are you thinking about the flexible or hybrid work situations and the… What we found in the research is, among the 1200 plus enrollment leaders that responded, 59% are working in a hybrid environment, 31% are working from their offices on campus, and 10% reported that they’re working fully remotely. And one of the things that we uncovered is those that were least likely to say they’re considering leaving their job were those that had the kind of flexibility that allowed them to come into the office and work on the days that they elected to do so rather than some fixed schedule.

0:10:07.5 KR: Yeah. Pam, to your point, I think that that’s very much the expectation not even just in the industry anymore, but just in the workplace in general. What we’re seeing is we’re no longer competing for employees with other institutions of higher education, we’re competing with Walmart down the road. The Wendy’s across the street from my office is offering a $500 signing bonus. It’s really, really a challenging environment. And so I think what we’ve all had to do is adapt with the teams that we have and the responsibilities that they have. So we have not been in a position where we have said, “Okay, you all have to come back a certain number of hours or certain number of days, or you all can work remotely,” what we have said is, “Based on your role, your responsibilities, we will flex with you.” So our campus, we put together, I think, a very healthy and a very responsible, remote work policy. And what I said to my directors and to their team members, is, “If you’re in a position where you can effectively work from home, then show me how that would work. And as long as we can get the job done effectively, we would approve that”.

0:11:26.4 KR: On the other hand, we just have some roles within our division, that are really face-to-face, not so much on the graduate side, because a lot of our graduate programs are, already they’re hybrid programs or they’re online programs, but specifically in our Undergraduate Admissions Office, those families are coming to visit the campus, and so those staff members, they need to be face-to-face. And so that director needs to be face-to-face to encourage and support and coach his team. So I think thinking about it from those flexible perspectives that what the role and responsibility requires, dictates how much flexibility you can provide. And I think a lot of our peers across the country have taken a similar approach.

0:12:13.7 PR: I think you’re right, Keith. At EAB, our partners are all in higher education. And as a consequence, my colleagues at EAB are encouraged to do what we can to have successful days whether we’re in the office, at home or on the road, and I think it mirrors what’s happening with our institutional partners.

0:12:39.5 KR: Yeah, very much so.

0:12:41.9 PR: So let’s shift gears for just a minute. I think one of the other really striking results of our research was that everybody’s reporting an increase in their marketing and recruitment efforts. Both our undergraduate and graduate partners are doing this. And we saw that with our NAGAP members and others responding to this survey over the past two years, a greater reliance on doing more, [chuckle] doing additional things, perhaps outside of our comfort zone, in the form of virtual events, or things that weren’t as necessary or as prevalent pre-pandemic. So could you talk a bit about the different strategies and tactics, these virtual events or personalized outreach from faculty and staff or anything else that has been effective in your recruitment and enrollment efforts?

0:13:44.7 KR: Sure. And that’s a great question, Pam. And I think that the highlights are the ones that you just mentioned, right, the virtual events. When we just… In many cases, there was simply no way to do that face-to-face event that had just become kind of our bread and butter. And so, with the advent of the Zoom meeting, or the Zoom webinar, or whatever, we all took greater advantage of those opportunities while they were still popular. Of course, one of the things that this question leads to, and I’m certainly not done answering this first part of it, but it leads to the question of what is still effective and what is not. And I have every reason to believe that our future research together will help us to uncover some of that. But for right now, it forced us, the pandemic forced us to say, “okay, what tools do we have at our disposal that will help us to continue to reach prospective students?” The Zoom meeting and the Zoom webinar, certainly one of those. Using social media more effectively, absolutely one of those. Increasing our digital spend and our digital ads, certainly one of those things.

0:14:54.0 KR: But the results of those things have also complicated our current situation and will continue to complicate it moving into the future, because there’s an added expense. We’ve talked on our campus, as a mid-sized private institution, the challenge is, hey, that the cost for those specific keywords that two years ago, we could afford, now are maybe outside of our reach, or we just have to do less. We get fewer leads for the same amount of money. Well, that’s not sustainable for us. So we have to find other alternatives and ways to continue to increase that. Same thing with the webinars. It’s still very effective. It’s an effective means. The Zoom meeting or the zoom webinar, it can be very effective, but Zoom fatigue is a real thing. And so those are all ongoing challenges that we’ll have to deal with in the future to find not necessarily the next big thing, but how can we consolidate? How can we determine best practice? How can we determine the return on investment on some of those things, and other things, other strategies, we’ve got to be willing to let them go if they’re no longer effective.

0:16:17.5 PR: That’s a really important point, Keith. One of the things I believe is that many people in your role are being asked to do more and more and more, just additive. And you don’t have the time or the resources to assess the productivity of each of these activities, the original ones, those incremental new ones, the things that you’re being pressured to add. And without that assessment, the ROI is not the driver, but rather, we operate under this false reality, that is, more is always going to be better.

0:16:55.7 KR: That’s right. And Pam, when we were kind of prepping for this, one of the things that I think EAB could help our listening audience with is to, one, help us to realize, well, how do we determine the ROI, because for a lot of us, these are new challenges. These are new initiatives. And so we think that determining the ROI and the value of some of these strategies, it should be obvious, it should be easy to make that determination. Honestly, in some cases, it’s just not that easy. And I think also, with your clientele, especially the senior leaders on campuses that you’re working with, just constantly putting it out there that you can’t always just do more. Doing more is not the solution, finding what’s effective and finding where you get the best bang for your buck, that’s what you should focus on, and that it’s okay to say, “I’m gonna walk away from this strategy. It’s no longer effective. It’s too expensive. It’s stretching our team too thin.” I think, coming from EAP and others, there’s always something to be said for the expert outside of the campus who can come in and support what we know, but to back us up. I think those are some things where EAB can really help us in those things.

0:18:11.2 PR: Yes, that’s great, Keith. We’re always thinking about the student perspective. Most of the research that I do is focused on the voice of the prospective student. And one of the things that we did in our work for NAGAP was really look at the best ways to communicate with prospective students, the benefits that they seek in pursuing graduate education. And when we think about… Students will raise their hand and say, “I’m interested in going to graduate school in order to get a raise or to get a promotion or to change careers.” And how do you and your colleagues communicate this benefit from completing graduate programs?

0:19:03.0 KR: Absolutely, again, another great question that we were looking at. And I think the bottom line here is we need to constantly put out the students return on investment, we look at our… We were just talking about our own return on investment, we need to consider the students return on investment. They’re in many cases, they’re investing time, they’re investing significant money, resources, and so what is that return on investment? So drawing a stronger connection between your graduate program or your graduate school or college with your career center, looking at those, the data coming from the Career Center, I think, is absolutely essential. Building stronger connections with your… I think is really critical.

0:19:47.6 KR: One of the things that I’ve said, and I’ve said this at my current institution and previous institutions, when you’re putting together a publication and recruitment publication or you’re working on a website, there should always be a connection to an alum, a testimonial to the value, the return on investment from, “What was I able to accomplish as a result of completing this particular program? What kind of job that I get? What kind of increase in salary was I able to obtain?” I think that those types of things are absolutely critical, and again, we’ve talked about this before, Pam, is that as a of the pandemic, we’ve seen the economy over the last couple of years up and down and up again, and now we’re in the deflationary situation where who knows what the next three, six, 12 months will look like, and so those connections and putting that data out there in very tangible and usable ways for your students, absolutely critical.

0:20:50.6 PR: Right, and I’m also thinking about the fact that students will frequently signal that they’ll consider graduate education if they have a handle on time to completion, they wanna know about the efficiency of it as well because they have to consider how much time they’re gonna be out of work or how much time they’re gonna compromise their family life and such, so the creative ways that we’ve been able to respond to the pandemic have also afforded institutions the opportunity to build efficiencies into the delivery of the curriculum.

0:21:27.9 KR: That’s right, that’s exactly right.

0:21:29.9 PR: I’m happy to say as a former faculty… University faculty member that I think our faculty have also gotten better at online teaching and managing online learning environments, and if that is one result of what we had to scramble to accomplish during COVID, I think it’s a significant and important one. So Keith, as you shift through the data from our eight flash polls, what are the top takeaways in terms of things that graduate enrollment managers should be doing differently or how they should be thinking differently about recruiting, and I’m thinking not just recruiting students but also recruiting and maintaining their staffs.

0:22:18.8 KR: Right. Well, and again, in preparation for this, I thought long and hard about what are those things that really kind of flowed into the top for me, and I think where you ended that question is where I would begin my answer, and that is, you’ve gotta take care of your team, you’ve gotta provide flexibility, you have to demonstrate appreciation for the challenging work environment and the hard work that they’re doing. On our campus, what I said even to members of our board of trustees is there are goals out there, head counts, revenue goals, those are significant, but whatever we need to do to get to those points, to read those goals, incrementally along the way, you need to congratulate your team, you need to remind them that you appreciate that work, that we know that it’s hard work, you recognize that, and that you thank them every time you get a chance for the effort that they’re putting in, I think that’s number one, for sure.

0:23:22.3 PR: And Keith, here’s… Start here because we’ve been thinking about this as we talk to the many partners we have in higher education, and you and I know from this research that there was a particular interest in us exploring mental health issues and wellness concerns, then what we’ve been thinking at EAB and offering to a wide variety of partners is ways that you can support your staff, you can acknowledge their mental health needs, you can require vacation days and provide mental health days to encourage a more balanced work life, and you can support these flex hours as we talked about earlier in the remote work environments. We also really can’t underestimate how potent it is to have effective and transparent communications with the people that you work with because people that aren’t working side by side or at their desk every day may feel less connected to the institution and we need to compensate for that through communications.

0:24:37.2 KR: And to that point, ma’am, I just wanna… One of the things that our president here at Ashland, again, he really led us well through the pandemic, and one of the things that he did, this started before my arrival here on campus was a periodic Town Hall for all employees of the institution, and that… I think one of the things that eases stress, that eases tension… And by the way, I was looking at one of our other pages in the white paper that will be coming out talking about our GEM professionals who had indicated either being extremely or very stressed, 49% indicated that. And one of the things that eases that stress, that eases that tension, is this feeling like I have a better idea of what the future holds, that you’ve communicated with me effectively. I don’t know all the answers but I trust in the leadership more because I feel like they’re being transparent and they’re trying to give us the information during these challenging times, and I think you’re exactly right. I think that that communication is something that your team will hold on to, so being more open, be more transparent, communicating regularly, I think, is really critical.

0:25:51.2 PR: And Keith, we’re doing the same thing at EAB. As a matter of fact, at noon today, our CEO is doing his firm-wide Zoom, where we get updates on a wide variety of topics, and we get a chance to see each other and interact with one another albeit via Zoom but it’s a very important part of how we stay connected to one another.

0:26:13.0 KR: Yeah, absolutely.

0:26:14.7 PR: So we went off the rails after a while.


0:26:19.0 KR: That’s okay. So I guess the second one is be conscious, be aware of what’s working and what’s not. Again, this is not necessarily something that was directly in the research that we did, but I think it came out of the discussions that we’ve had, and that is, we can’t simply do more, most of us have fixed budgets or reduction in budgets as a result of COVID, many of us have similar staff levels or reduced staff levels, and so simply to say: We’re just gonna throw more spaghetti at the wall and hope that it sticks, that is not a long-term solution to what’s going on right now. And so I think as leaders in the GEM world, we need to be very conscious of what’s worked and what has not, and again, as I’ve said before, you have to be willing to walk away from those things that are just no longer effective.

0:27:20.1 PR: And maybe even alter your goals.

0:27:25.6 KR: That’s right. Correct. Yep. And then I would say that the third one for me is, don’t miss the opportunity, every opportunity that you have, every chance that you have to touch base with the perspective student, that connection to outcomes and their return on investment is more and more significant. That was my third takeaway, that between the media and others who are saying the return on investment just isn’t there anymore, well, we all know the research doesn’t back that up. The research continues to back up that new job creation. And this country and around the world will continue to require not just the graduate degrees that we currently offer but new graduate degrees, innovative graduate degrees, technical graduate degrees that the graduate degree continues to lead towards additional opportunities in the work place, additional opportunities when it comes to earning potential and that has not changed over the last couple of years in spite of what we sometimes here or what we’re led to believe, that is simply not the case, we need to make those connections to the value of the graduate education.

0:28:43.8 PR: And Keith, to that point, in one of our early flash polls, we did have enrollment leaders suggest that because of the conditions that we were all experiencing with COVID, some institutions were deciding this is the moment to launch a new program, if it was not a stepping back but it was a stepping across into an area that they felt could be competitive and perhaps close an existing gap in higher education.

0:29:14.5 KR: I totally agree, Pam. I was at an institution at the time where fortunately we had several new graduate certificates and degree programs in the pipeline, and most of them were already designed to be delivered online, and those launched all within a matter of months right after the pandemic hit. And as a result, we were very much primed for the demand for the online graduate certificate, again, the online graduate degree program. Those schools that had not thought about that, I think, we were trying to ramp those things up, many schools are in that situation now. But one of the things that I’ve tried to do here at Ashland, and in fact, I just talked to my president about it yesterday, many schools look at that new program pipeline as… They count on that every single year and I think the diversity of that pipeline especially when you don’t know what the future holds, the economy is always changing, the pandemic is something nobody could have predicted, but just thinking about how we can diversify our pipeline of new program development to meet the growing needs, the diverse needs of the future of graduate education, absolutely essential.

0:30:30.4 PR: You mentioned our colleague Donald earlier, and one of the things that Donald keeps reminding me about is that the stress of this moment is presenting an opportunity for GEM professionals, an opportunity to flex, in many cases, to step up and to take charge and to maybe take on greater responsibility of a broader portfolio. And while it seems really overwhelming, if we look at the flip side that many are being presented with opportunities they would not have had if the environment had been more static.

0:31:10.6 KR: I totally agree with that. I mean, there’s not even the opportunities for the professional but for… In many cases, graduate schools, graduate colleges were always kind of, I don’t wanna say sidelined, but they were kind of looked at secondarily compared to their undergraduate counterparts, and I think over the last couple of years as more and more schools… And I think this is already starting to happen but I think that COVID moved this forward and moved the graduate areas really to the forefront because it was a little bit easier in many cases for them to move to an online format or a flexible format. And so, I totally agree with that. I think it’s been an opportunity for many campuses and an opportunity certainly for many GEM professionals to utilize the skills that they’ve learned in ways that would not have otherwise existed.

0:32:03.8 PR: Yeah. It’s a bright light in what might sound like a pretty oppressive situation. But you mentioned our white paper earlier, I just wanna make sure that our audience knows that in a matter of weeks, we will have all… The results from all eight of our flash polls over the course of the last two years outlined in a great format for you to get a little bit more detail on some of the topics that Keith and I had a chance to talk about today. We really have just scratched the surface on this research partnership with NAGAP and EAB. One of the things we’re excited about, as I mentioned earlier, is it’s going to continue. So one of the things that I’m always interested in when I conduct research is to give people that respond an opportunity to suggest other topics, so we would love to hear from all of you about things that are of great interest that… We’re gonna wanna track things because the advantage of having a longer-term partnership with NAGAP is EAB gets to look at trends, we get to track things, and bring even more valuable data to our partners. So, we’ll be looking at the full data set and its insights to help inform what we do next.

0:33:32.0 KR: I agree, Pam, I think it’s exciting. I love this partnership, not just because of what it’s meant to our organization, but really to the entire GEM community, and it’s been just a great opportunity for the few of us who have worked together and been able to dig down into the data. That’s been a lot of fun as well and again, we’re kind of learning as we go and this is all new, it’s all fresh, it’s in the moment, that’s what I love about the idea of the pulse surveys. And I also appreciate the opportunity to look at this and say, “Okay”, you mentioned trends, some of these things will continue where we’ll look at the trends in some of these areas, what I’m interested in seeing is what are schools walking away, what will become permanent out of this, what will maybe stop over a period of time, and then, of course, as you mentioned, we would love to give feedback from our listening audience here to say, “Well, here are some immediate concerns”, maybe some areas that we have not thought about that directly impact the graduate enrollment management profession, and we’d love to dig deeper into those areas as well.

0:34:40.3 PR: That’s right, and that’s kind of the MO of NAGAP, providing all kinds of support to its members and you have done such an excellent job with that and it’s been just delightful to work with you and I wanna thank you Keith for joining me today. It was as always a fun conversation, and I look forward to what we get to do together next.

0:35:03.1 KR: Me too. Thanks so much for having me, Pam.

0:35:11.6 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week for a one-on-one conversation with Michael Crow, the President of Arizona State University. Until then, thank you for your time.

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