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Graduate Enrollment Leaders Speak Out

Episode 198

June 4, 2024 21 minutes


EAB’s Camilla Arias hosts a discussion with Pam Royall, head of research for EAB’s enrollment division, and global higher education consultant, Donald Resnick, to unpack findings from the latest EAB-NAGAP survey of graduate enrollment leaders. The three discuss the extent to which graduate enrollment professionals are happy in their jobs, meeting their goals, and embracing new technologies like AI. They also share advice on growing enrollments by understanding the most important factors motivating prospective applicants.


0:00:10.7 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Our guests today share findings from the latest joint NAGAP-EAB survey of graduate enrollment leaders to learn about their challenges and the strategies they’re using to overcome them. It’s an eye-opening discussion, so give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:36.8 Camilla Arias: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Camilla Arias and I’m a senior analyst on EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment Team. One of my areas of focus in recent months has been on how emerging trends like the growth of Gen Z, the introduction of AI, and decreasing university budgets are impacting graduate programs. To learn more about how graduate enrollment teams are feeling about these changes, our Adult Learner Recruitment Team partnered with NAGAP, the Association for Graduate Enrollment Management to survey nearly 650 enrollment leaders across the country from late 2023 to early 2024. Joining me today to talk about the survey findings and implications is my colleague, Pam Royall, and NAGAP expert and global Higher Ed consultant, Donald Resnick. Could you both briefly tell us about your backgrounds and your respective roles?

0:01:25.0 Pam Royall: Thanks, Camilla. Happy to do so. I’m Pam Royall and my job at EAB is to serve as head of research for our survey research division that works with our marketing and enrollment solutions group. And I’ve been in that role for 22 years. And prior to joining EAB, I served as a graduate faculty member in schools of business at large public universities for almost as many years. So I’m just thrilled to be leading the charge from EAB’s perspective on the data collection for this research project and sharing that with my friend and colleague, Donald Resnick.

0:02:12.3 Donald Resnick: Well, thanks, Pam, and thanks, Camilla. I am Donald Resnick, and I’ve been in higher education for almost 40 years, having served as the chief enrollment and success officer for several universities. I have worked for and consulted with both public and private institutions, small, large, and in between. I am currently a global higher education consultant working on enrollment and student success issues and changes being experienced by institutes of higher education. I also take great pride in working with socioeconomically disadvantaged and first-generation youths that are applying for undergraduate studies. It’s the do-good part that I am very excited about.

0:02:57.0 DR: As a side note, I am currently a member of NAGAP and I was a member of the very original NAGAP, which was a very long time ago. I had the privilege of serving on NAGAP’s governing board for over a decade including as its president, and received the organization’s inaugural Distinguished Service Award, NAGAP’s highest honor.

0:03:19.0 CA: Well, we are incredibly lucky to be joined by both of your years of experience. I can only hope to one day get there. So thank you both so much for being with me today. Given that this survey series and research collaboration between EAB and NAGAP is now in its fourth year, I know you two aren’t strangers to this process. What was the primary purpose of those surveys and what information were you hoping to glean that would be of value to university leaders? And was there anything different about the survey this year as compared to the previous years?

0:03:48.6 PR: Thanks for those questions. It’s really important to acknowledge that we began this collaboration in 2020 during the COVID pandemic. And it was really motivated in part by the pandemic. We wanted to respond to the heightened level of anxiety and uncertainty that was being experienced on university campuses at that time. And our goal was to provide graduate enrollment managers with insight into what others in their role were doing on other campuses, how they were responding, what challenges they were facing. We also wanted to establish a baseline for key enrollment metrics, and then use our subsequent surveys to provide a periodic check-in to see how GEM professionals were navigating this environment.

0:04:42.4 PR And I like to think of it almost as a reset for the new enrollment management environment in light of a global pandemic. And then each year we have some common questions that we repeat because we want to look at the change in enrollment goals and in the results of recruitment enrollment activities. We also have monitored staffing challenges on an annual basis. And then in individual surveys, and we’ve done three or four each year, we’ve explored a special topic of interest to enrollment professionals. Most recently it was the role of AI in their work.

0:05:29.6 DR: So I continue to be impressed over the years about how representative the responses have been for the entire higher education landscape. Additionally, early on when we were doing presentations during the pandemic and shortly thereafter, we were commenting in our early years about data points. I think it’s really important to know that now as you indicate, we’re in year four, that it’s incredibly important that we can and do report on the trends as opposed to just points in time. Trend data is always more beneficial and typically much more enlightening.

0:06:11.7 CA: Yeah, and I think that is a great lead-in to my first question. I’m really curious to hear how staffing challenges have changed in the recent years. For some context, our survey last year revealed that 67% of graduate enrollment leaders were considering leaving their jobs. How has that changed this year and what are some of the reasons why?

0:06:34.3 PR: Well Camilla, while the percentage of graduate enrollment leaders who have considered leaving their job or changing job has gone down this year, it’s still a significant 54% who indicated they are considering leaving their positions. In addition, 45% indicated that they feel high levels of stress due to unfilled positions within their organizations. And again, 45% indicated it was heavier workloads resulting in shortages as a result of shortages that is causing all kinds of stress on their jobs. 43% also indicated that they’re feeling stressed due to unrealistic enrollment goals.

0:07:20.8 CA: Is there anything that leaders can do to turn this around?

0:07:24.6 DR: Well, just to piggyback on what Pam was just sharing, try to release stress and the biggest stress reliever according to the survey participants responses would be the ability to A, secure additional staff and B, fill vacant positions. Importantly, GEM leaders with whom I have spoken very recently continue to share with me they are spending significantly more time and finding it much more difficult to fill their vacant positions. So that is energy and effort that had historically been trying to being utilized to achieve one’s goals simply being used to fill vacant staff and hire hopefully additional staff.

0:08:08.9 DR: Separately and notably to my mind, respondents also indicated a growing desire for support and recognition from leadership to help reduce that same stress. Interestingly, in 2022, 9% of the respondents indicated that. That’s a relatively small percentage, but in 2023 that number grew to 15%. Still not a huge number, but clearly a growing number and in fact the biggest increase year over year. Certainly something that we will be keeping an eye on going forward.

0:08:42.9 PR: Well, and Donald something that I also want to respond to, there are other strategies which include hiring external or temporary staff support. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a full line and to hire into a permanent position, but that can help reduce staff workload. And when we think about the prospect of staff turnover, we need to acknowledge the role of job satisfaction. What are we doing to make people happier? A lot can be said for the power of empathy and the acknowledgement of challenging situations. To learn more about staff concerns and to gain insights into ways to address them, we recommend surveying your staff either formally or informally. Just having conversations about what is operating in the office climate, what are the overriding tensions, and what are some of the sources of your team members dissatisfaction.

0:09:45.0 DR: So it’s interesting, Pam, merging two points you mentioned before with the ability to generate enthusiasm and excitement, circling back to the introduction of commentary around the introduction of AI. We have found that staff are particularly excited about the potential for AI to reduce time required to do some of the more mundane jobs that are in the office that perhaps are causing stress as a result of trying to fill vacant positions, etcetera. The ability to reduce time to draft content, to use next generation chatbots, and a desire to optimize communication flows are just a couple of ways in which AI can be beneficial.

0:10:25.9 DR: Additionally, from the survey participants, it’s very pleasing for me to see that over 75% have used new AI technologies in some way, shape or form. However, with good news, there’s always some challenging news. I do want to note that only 8% of respondents that shared that their institutions have made the adoption of new AI tools a strategic priority. It actually hearkens back for me to an experience that I had in NAGAP over 30 years ago when NAGAP conducted a survey of its membership regarding the priority of what was then a relatively new technology known as the internet. While the vast majority had used it, only a small percentage considered it as a top priority, interestingly enough. GEM was a laggard around that adoption. May I suggest that we learn our lesson from the past and not be laggards with AI going forward? .

0:11:27.0 PR: Such a great point, Donald, and pretty amazing. And you and I can relate to that. I heard a little bit of a chuckle from Camilla about the fact that 30 years ago the internet was something new and we didn’t know if it would work. I’d just like to add one other thing. What we learned during the pandemic was that workplace policies could be more flexible to accommodate the situations that people found themselves in which were full of new stressors. So, the idea that you can still offer more flexible hours and work from home options is something to consider as a mechanism for reducing stress and increasing job satisfaction.

0:12:11.0 CA: I’d love to take a second to talk about the priorities that you mentioned, Donald, ’cause another one that we talk a lot about are growth goals. We know that in the past decade or so, changing demographics and perceptions of the value of higher education have combined to create a really increasingly difficult landscape for colleges and universities, and this is true in the graduate space as well. So how did graduate programs fare for the 2023 academic year?

0:12:37.2 PR: Well, sadly, nearly 40% reported that they missed their headcount goals, and 30% indicated they didn’t meet their net tuition revenue goals. These findings, however, were not too surprising given that 60% reported that they were working toward higher goals than they had last year, and that was even the case in situations where they failed to meet their goals in the previous year. Importantly, we learned that graduate enrollment leaders who had input into the process of goal setting were more likely to meet their goals. This finding sends a powerful message. More than three-quarters of institutions where graduate enrollment leaders had a great deal of input or ended up meeting or exceeding their headcount goals, and that’s compared to half of the programs where leaders had little or no input. Simply put, the more input an enrollment manager had in enrollment goal setting, the more likely they were to meet their goals.

0:13:48.9 CA: Yeah, and talking about trends, that’s a trend that we saw last year as well, and it’s just an interesting one that persists. Is there anything else that you would urge senior leaders to do in terms of adjusting their approach to goal setting?

0:14:01.0 DR: Yeah, Camilla, it’s interesting. I would simply say follow the data in this case. Pure and simple, the data would strongly encourage institutions to have GEM professionals at the table, leaning in and participating in the dialog, providing input into graduate enrollment goal setting. The data is unambiguous here.

0:14:23.3 DR: Second point, I would carefully consider graduate enrollment goal growth, especially in light of the data that Pam is sharing, in that growth is being expected even in situations where there was no growth experienced before. Important to consider the growth goals through intentional planning and priority setting. Remember, to my mind, and for those that have heard me speak before, I say this ad nauseam. To my mind, a priority is not a priority if fiscal and human resources are not provided. Last point, I think it’s very beneficial to improve transparency around enrollment results and the general enrollment goal and planning process. It should not be done behind curtain. It should be a full, open, wholesome, dare I use the term, holistic process with the community so that everyone is aware, has an opportunity to engage, and specifically, back to my point one, hopefully the GEM professionals are at the table and participating.

0:15:27.3 CA: Yeah, absolutely. I really want to quickly touch on Gen Z. I feel like it’s almost a buzzword at this point, and I mentioned it earlier, but they are growing, and most of them are doing independent research, many for over a year before they apply, and they’re very cost-conscious. How are schools adjusting their recruitment tactics to address these concerns, and are they adjusting their priorities accordingly?

0:15:52.6 PR: Well, as you mentioned, Camilla, in a recent survey that we did with adult learners, we learned that students are increasingly making their enrollment decision based on cost. They’re thinking about financial aid as a priority. It’s their number one factor influencing their enrollment decisions. And given this growing cost-consciousness, marketing and enrollment teams need to convey that a graduate education is a smart choice and a worthwhile investment.

0:16:24.7 PR: As we learned in our NAGAP studies, graduate leaders are appropriately prioritizing communications regarding the value of graduate education. They’re also recognizing the role of students’ independent research, and in response to that, they’re prioritizing robust and easily accessible content on their website for prospective students.

0:16:54.7 DR: To that point, it’s not surprising, in fact very interesting, that no one recruitment activity is necessarily standing out as having the biggest “impact on enrollment”. Last year, events especially for in-person programming really did stand out, but this year we can laundry list it. Events, web increase, emails, referrals, and general SEO and SEM were all similarly effective in terms of generating impact and interest in programs. This essentially highlights the importance of having a diversified recruitment strategy, and also that regardless of which channel that you’re using, it is all about messaging, making sure that the messaging is relevant to, as well as resonates with the audience.

0:17:45.6 CA: Yeah, something else that I found interesting from our survey is that 88% of institutions respond to requests for information within two business days. So it really is paramount in addition to messaging to also be really, really timely with your messaging to those students. There’s such a short time attention span these days, I would know, and a message that’s not coming really quickly is going to be one that’s forgotten. And as much as I wish we could share all the findings from the survey, ’cause I really think they’re all so interesting, we are just at about time, but before we go, is there any final advice that you would share with graduate enrollment professionals or university leaders about responding to these trends that we’re seeing in the market?

0:18:29.2 DR: Yeah, let me just jump in there. Graduate leaders, as I mentioned earlier, have a really optimistic outlook on AI, cautious but optimistic, and they should leverage that to their advantage. Significant and complete research has shown that when used correctly and appropriately, these tools, AI tools, including ChatGPT, can significantly increase both the writing speed and improve the quality of the written content. And again, the importance about that is that it resonates with the prospective students. And in this era of challenge staffing environments, which we talked about earlier on, leveraging this technology can certainly help to reach significant dividends in this space.

0:19:16.0 PR: And further recognizing challenges, we know that many graduate leaders are concerned about several financial trends. Number one, the increasing cost of higher education. Number two, more students questioning the value of higher education. And importantly, number three, the decrease in university budgets. You can try to minimize the impact of these trends on your enrollment outcomes by focusing on the financial burden your prospective students will face. We learned from adult learners that we recently surveyed that almost 40% are pursuing higher education to advance their careers.

0:20:00.1 PR: To help provide a pathway for prospective students, you can optimize your financial aid strategy, you can communicate costs clearly in recruitment materials, and you can convey the return on investment from specific studies or programs that will support students realizing their full potential.

0:20:21.3 CA: Thank you both so much for joining me today and for all the work you do on our surveys. The information that we glean from these surveys is always so interesting, and I hope that everyone listening will dig into the findings even more because there’s a time that we didn’t have a chance to touch on. But thank you, Pam. Thank you, Donald, so much for your time today.

0:20:43.0 PR: Thank you.

0:20:43.0 DR: Thank you.


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