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How to Build an Effective Graduate Enrollment Management Plan

Episode 127

November 8, 2022 26 minutes


EAB’s Kevin Shriner and Camilla Arias discuss the elements of an effective graduate enrollment plan. The discussion covers a range of issues including the importance of market research, setting appropriate goals, staffing, and securing buy in from campus stakeholders.

Kevin and Camilla also explore strengths and weaknesses of different course modalities and offer tips on finding and engaging today’s adult learners.


0:00:11.3 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we talk about how reliant universities are on growing graduate enrollments to compensate for whatever financial ills their institution may be facing. Our experts offer some perspective and tips for building a graduate enrollment plan that matches the mission and strengths of your institution, while making sure that plan is also grounded in marketplace realities. Give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:43.2 Camilla Arias: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Camilla Arias, and I’m an analyst on EAB’s Adult Learner Recruitment team. I’m really excited to be joined today by my colleague, Kevin Shriner. Kevin, would you mind introducing yourself and telling our listeners briefly about some of the work you’ve been doing recently around helping partner institutions build more effective graduate enrollment management plans?

0:01:08.5 Kevin Shriner: Happy to, Camilla, and thank you so much for having me on Office Hours. I’m really excited to talk about graduate enrollment management plans, I think it’s a really critical component to today’s higher education arena, I think it’s an area that we’ve really thought a lot about in the undergraduate space, and I don’t think we think a lot about it in the graduate space. And so what I do at EAB, I’m a senior director, I’m responsible for enrollment strategy, so I work with our partners and I work with other schools. As you know, EAB works with over 2500 institutions and I get the pleasure of working with a lot of those schools and really just thinking through, What is the strategy for today’s adult learner? So when we think about adult learners from a standpoint of adult degree completion, or in this case, graduate and professional programs, the way that they are thinking about going to college is different than the way they were thinking about going to college before. How we market to them, how we speak to them, how we attract them to our institutions also is different and has been evolving, and so I think it’s really important to think about that from a strategic context.

0:02:18.1 KS: And so even just breaking down just some of the simplest things that we’ve seen over the past 20 years of higher ed enrollments, graduate enrollment have done really well during times of recession and during times of this recent pandemic. In-between those times, schools struggle, and so it’s important to have that plan set up and initiated and working on campus so that you can deal with those times of peak enrollments and the times when we’re in-between those areas where we’re struggling to find students, And how do we get to students? There’s a lot of competition, we could talk about that a little bit as one of the areas to think about, but I just love what I do every day, I get that chance to be able to talk to schools in thinking about how to strategize, how to be strategic in thinking through your enrollment goals.

0:03:10.3 CA: Kevin, and as a recent grad and young adult, I love hearing you talk about this too, and it all rings so true. So when you talk about a graduate enrollment management plan, what are the hallmarks of an effective one? In other words, what foundational elements must be considered and incorporated effectively in order for this plan to actually work?

0:03:34.1 KS: Yeah, so the things to put together, I think most of us probably know what those things are, so those of us who have been working in higher ed for a number of years probably know the basis of putting together a strategic plan. How do we measure our goals? How do we set appropriate goals? How are we going to ensure that we’re meeting those goals and objectives? I’m gonna swing just a little bit before we get into how to set this up and just go back just a little bit to the reason why it’s important. We all know that there’s an impending cliff coming with the undergraduate population, that it’s going to start to decline. If we rely on undergraduates as our funnel only to our graduate programs and we’re not thinking about the individuals who graduated five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago, we’re gonna start to miss our enrollment goals. And so oftentimes schools will ask, “We’ve been challenged with 30 to 35% enrollment goals. What do we need to do in order to meet those goals and objectives? And so what I always say is, how are you thinking about your programs? How are you thinking about your enrollments?”

0:04:45.1 KS: So when we start to think about the things that are part of a GEM plan and how you would put those things together, I would say you should start with ensuring that you are analyzing your faculty and your resources. Do I have enough faculty to teach my courses? Do I have advisors to advise students to make them successful in their programs? What are we doing from an admissions standpoint, marketing standpoint? And when I’m using those, I’m talking about people, individuals being involved in those processes to be successful. How do we ensure students are gonna be retained, and they’re actually going to be successful? There were some recent studies that demonstrated that graduate students potentially are as unsuccessful as undergraduate students when they’re not provided the right resources to be successful. So what are we doing to think about those things at the institution to help our students be successful once they start? What about tuition and financial aid? Typically at the graduate level, financial aid is in the form of loans, but as an institution, do we have an opportunity to provide scholarships? Can we provide discounting to our graduate students from a tuition standpoint? What are some of the things that we can do to help students financially think through the financial burden of returning to school and going on and completing their degree?

0:06:08.2 KS: And then other things like the environmental scan, program development, marketing and recruiting. So I talked about a lot of different things, but I’ll just bring them all back to context as to, What are the six major things that you should be doing? You should have an environmental scan. You should understand how your programs need to be developed for today’s market. You should have a marketing and recruiting plan that talks about how to reach your goals and objectives. You should think about tuition and financial aid as a subset of marketing and recruiting to retain students, your students’ success and retention measures, and then ultimately your faculty and your resources.

0:06:51.2 CA: Well, as much as I’d love to talk about all six of these elements, they’re all so important. And I’d love to give you more time to dive into just a couple of these, whichever you feel are most critical right now. I’d love to give some more examples and some more context to a couple of these elements of your GEM plan.

0:07:14.9 KS: So the way I was trying to look at this is, all of them are critically important. It’s important, one, from the very beginning that as an institution, you come together as a team to put together a graduate enrollment management plan, so I think that part is important first and then we should focus just a little bit of time thinking about the fact that this is not something built in a silo, this is not one person comes in and says, “Oh this is gonna be the strategy I’m gonna put it together and I’m gonna build it.” Just like in the undergraduate space, we have partners and constituents across all parts of the institution. We need to make sure that they’re involved. And so the ones that I would look at, because I think they probably involve more individuals from outside of maybe a graduate school or in the graduate admissions area, would be, one, to look at the internal and external environmental scan.

0:08:12.8 KS: When I was a former associate dean of institutional research, I did a lot of this work at the undergraduate level. Understanding the marketplace, understanding whether or not our programs would resonate in the marketplace. Is there a job demand for the programs that we’re gonna be offering? So if we were thinking about doing a Master of Science in Data Analytics, what does that mean for students to complete that degree program and get employed in our region where we’re gonna be sending graduates to get jobs once they’re done? Do those programs resonate? And is there an opportunity for someone to enhance or change their career by having those programs? So really understanding, Is there a economical need to create a program versus creating a program because I wanna have that program on campus and it’s something that we just think is missing? What’s the end value for our students?

0:09:10.1 KS: The other thing I would focus on is really thinking about program development, and when I say “program development,” it’s not the courses that create the program, it’s more of the strategies behind developing your program to meet the needs of today’s adult student. What are your admissions requirements? Are your program admissions requirements competitive? How many hours does it take to complete that program? And then you could tie tuition into that. But really, most schools right now are struggling with modality. What is the right modality of my program? Should I offer my program online? Should it be blended? Should it be on-campus only? And really that comes down to what your students want. Right? Some of that you have to understand, Who are you still serving? You can serve adult students in a flexible way on campus but are you really putting together the pattern of courses and instruction to do that? So those are the things that I think from a program development standpoint are really critical to understanding, is, How do you meet the needs of today’s adult student in a way that they’re wanting to take courses?

0:10:18.6 KS: And then ultimately marketing and recruiting. [chuckle] It goes without saying. If we’re not properly marketing our programs and providing the right types of information for students, they’re not gonna find us. I think an EAB research that we have done recently, Camilla, is that the older an adult student gets the fewer schools that they apply to. In fact, two is the average. And I know you’ve seen some of this in some of the research that you’ve done for our team in this space, that today, their mindset is just a little bit different than what it has been in the past when they think about enrolling in programs. But it does make me think too back to I think something you had written earlier as well, is, students of color and underrepresented students and how they’re thinking about going to school and the impact that higher ed has on them. Do you wanna share a little bit about that research? I think it’s really important to the GEM plan.

0:11:23.2 CA: Yeah, I think it’s such a great question, it’s a topic I’m so passionate about and so I’m really glad you asked about it. I mean, just as an example, black-student enrollment in graduate programs has increased in recent years but a lot of enrollment leaders are still concerned about the sustainability of this trend. When we look at it, even with this increase, still only 11% of graduate students identify as black in 2020. And even further when we look at undergraduate enrollment, black enrollment is actually declining, so it’s not gonna be an easy thing to address and it definitely has to be an intentional thing that graduate schools are working towards.

0:12:05.4 KS: Yeah, I think that’s really important. There’s a stat that I tend to share a lot when I talk to schools in really thinking about, What does diversification mean? And fall of… Huge iPads person, I should have probably mentioned that the very beginning of all this, but we can dive into the data all day long. But in fall 2017, higher ed from an undergraduate perspective and a graduate perspective was no longer white-majority, meaning that if we looked at the race and ethnicities that were reported in iPads, white students were now below that 50% mark, and in fact, in recent years, just as early as fall 2020, when we had that data, African-American students, Hispanic, Latinx students, Asian students are actually increasing in enrollments. And to your point, schools have to really think about what that means from a marketing message to enroll those students. And so we’d really be interested in, from the research you’ve done for marketing and recruiting, what could GEM plans incorporate from an outreach standpoint or thinking about their marketing in a way to impact more students of color?

0:13:22.6 CA: I really think the name of the game here is intentionality, I mean, marketing is important, but in order to make sure you’re reaching this target demographic, it means you intentionally have to make that effort and take that step. So maybe that means widening your search parameters, maybe you’re widening the geographic locations, you’re looking for students or the score, the average GPAs you’re looking at, or maybe it means literally going onto campus and showing up at recruitment events at HBCUs and HSIs. And then once you have their attention, what is your messaging actually saying? Are you talking about the support that you’re going to provide? Are you talking about issues that matter to these communities? Obviously, there are tons of options, so it really is about making sure your students know that you care about them, will support them, and that your marketing is personalized to what they are looking for and need. Otherwise, there are other options.

0:14:30.7 KS: To me, intentionality comes out of all of that. Right? Like, what’s the intention? How are you being intentional in your outreach in ensuring that the message that you’re trying to convey to prospective students is resonating? All that goes back to, How do we measure those types of things. Right? So when we think about our GEM plan and our key performance indicators, how are we evaluating our enrollment funnel as part of that measure of success? Are we evaluating inquiries to applicants, applicants to enrollees? But then are we even breaking it down further than that to understand the population of where they’re coming from? Are we getting younger students in our funnel? Are we getting older students? Are we getting more students of color in our funnel? What marketing is resonating? What marketing is working? I think it all comes back to your key points. Right?

0:15:22.7 KS: Like just thinking about where are you marketing? How are you marketing? What are the different types of places where you should be putting your ads to ensure that you’re reaching out to the  right types of students that are gonna be interested in your programs? All of that is like critical to the way GEM plans have to operate, and it’s not an annual plan, I mean, it’s a plan that has to be put into action for a period of time but we have to evaluate it really almost on a semester basis to an annual basis to ensure that we’re doing the things that we say that we’re going to do, like we’re getting the results out of the work that we wanted to get out of it to begin with. So I think your points of, How do you start to think about other populations? Is not just students of color as a population, but working students versus non-working students.

0:16:20.9 KS: You mentioned earlier, you’re one of those returning adult students to school. I can look at my own children and they’re in that same boat, that my daughter decided to go back to school after she graduated. My son went right from undergrad into medical school. So there’s different pathways for everyone, and we have to understand that as institutions, especially at the graduate level, that we could be talking to someone who’s 21 years old about a program, at the same time, we’re talking to somebody who’s 45 years old about that same program, and those messages have to be really unique, to your point, personalized to the way that they’re thinking about making that decision to enroll.

0:17:00.8 CA: Yeah, and I really liked your point, Kevin, about, you can’t just create a GEM plan and then let it sit there and be done with it, it’s definitely, you have to re-evaluate, you have to look at what’s working, you have to look at what your goals are, what your mission is, and see if it’s all aligned, and then continuously assess that data, assess how it’s working and reevaluate. So what are the top pieces of advice you would offer to, let’s say, a graduate school dean who’s looking to strengthen or to even create a GEM plan in the first place?

0:17:35.8 KS: I think the first thing you should do if you’re thinking about just… You don’t have a plan and you wanna build a plan, is, I would bring together individuals on campus that are stakeholders in your success, so if you’re the dean of grad, you should incorporate the deans of the various colleges and schools on campus. What are their goals? What are their objectives? What do they want out of enrollment? We should include our provost or vice president of academic affairs, chief academic officer. We should include our president. We should understand what the president wants. We should include the CFO. Oftentimes, we don’t think about the financial person, but the CFO is gonna have some insights as to how financially some of these things are gonna come together. If you need a budget for marketing, Where are those funds gonna come from? How are you gonna be able to put those dollars together? Are you gonna have to rely on enrollment before you can start marketing the right message to students before that happens?

0:18:35.2 KS: I would also probably include… Even though most grad schools don’t use the traditional academic advising and some of the student support services that are run by the vice president of student affairs, I would include that individual in these meetings because there’s probably places where we can gain retention as a component of our grad GEM plan as a way to solidify enrollments by having students stay longer and actually graduate through their programs rather than not finish their programs. That’s the first thing I would do, I think you can’t build it in a silo, you can’t build it in a bubble, so I would get enough individuals together to think about what a plan should look like and then I would start to put together, What are the different components that need to go into doing our external and internal analysis of programs? Understanding how we’re gonna do marketing and recruitment, understand how we’re going to evaluate programs from a modality standpoint and credit hours and those types of things. Whether or not tuition and financial aid can have an impact on enrollments. Can we provide incentives to individuals in that way?

0:19:53.3 KS: How are we gonna measure success, not only of our plan, but of our students that are going through that plan? And then ultimately, do we have the right resources in place? Do we need to go create staffing? Do we need to change what staffing looks like? So once you put all those six things together with that group, then you can really start to build plans that are gonna make sense across the entire institution. So instead of just throwing a dart and saying, “Okay, it hit 40%, so we have to have a 40% increase in enrollment,” what does the realistic number look like? How do we start to grow programs? There’s gonna be some programs that can’t grow, and we have to be okay with that. When I say “are not able to grow,” there are some that are limited just by the capacity of the types of programs that they are.

0:20:44.6 KS: And so they have limited capacity. So we can’t expect a limited-capacity program to add 10% or 20% more students when they’re limited. Right? But where are programs where we can grow? Can we grow if we do different modalities? So those are the different types of things that have to come into play. And I think what I would probably say really, after I’ve said all of that, and all of that is perfectly great context, it all makes a ton of sense, but at the end of the day, I understand who your competitors are in this space, and, What do you have to do to be competitive? I think there’s some data that we’ve looked at before where the numbers of institutions… So higher ed institutions have actually been declining over the past 20 years or so, but enrollments have gone up in grad, albeit slow, they’ve gone up. So the fact that there’s fewer schools for more people to choose from means you have to understand where you fit in that marketplace.

0:21:46.6 CA: Right, definitely. For a graduate school dean who’s talking about a GEM plan, how do you think they might approach their boss to talk about what they actually can and cannot do realistically when we’re talking about boosting enrollment?

0:22:03.6 KS: I think that’s where I spend a lot of my work, I do a lot of that on a day-to-day basis when I work with schools, it’s trying to help them understand what are realistic goals. Really, until you do the environmental scan and understand how many programs already exist. Let’s use MBA as an example. There’s over a thousand MBA programs and over 500 of those MBA programs are offered online. So if you wanna create an MBA program, and I’m all for creating MBA programs, I don’t think we’re at a point where we can’t, but the question is, Who are you evaluating yourself against, and what are your expectations in those enrollments? Oftentimes, schools have built programs and it’s always the, “If you build it, they will enrol,” type of philosophy. That’s gone, and that’s been gone for a while. And so if you’re trying to convince your boss that 15% increase in enrollment is really the place where we should be, then you have to come up with the plan that has the right metrics that reflect the marketplace in the right way.

0:23:14.3 KS: So to me, that’s where you would start, is if you do the environmental scan, How many people are graduating with a master’s degree in business administration, how many graduates in the MBA? Where are those schools concentrated? How many schools are in your region or in your state that are offering those degree programs? And then, How small are you comfortable with an enrollment? So you have to look again, faculty resources, your staffing, your budget, your finances, all of those come into play. Schools typically don’t think about things from a financial pro forma. A financial pro forma is your entire performance of your financial obligations. What are your inputs and what are your outputs in that? We have to get to that level where we’re starting to think about, What do I need from an enrollment standpoint to cover my cost, and then what can I increase without adding additional cost?

0:24:15.8 KS: So how large can my class size be without having to add another faculty member? Those are the… We have to start thinking about things from a financial perspective. And so I would say to anyone, a graduate dean or anyone that needs to talk to the president or vice provost about growing in this space is, “Put together the financial plan that is built on data that resonates with what you’re trying to do, and that will get you much further than just, ‘We have a faculty member who wants to put a master’s degree in history online, and we support it and we should go do it,’ but you don’t know what the enrollments are gonna be. You don’t know what it’s gonna take to market that program. You don’t know whether or not there’s gonna be any enrollments for that program.” So don’t shoot in the dark, bring it to the light and have those conversations openly and honestly about where your growth should be.

0:25:11.2 CA: Well, thank you so much for that, Kevin, I know that we have only scratched the surface on this topic, but our time is drawing to a close. We will include some useful links in the show notes for listeners who want to explore this topic further. Kevin, you mentioned this financial piece and there’s some graphic that you shared with me at this table, I wish I could pull it up so that our listeners could see that, it’s such a great visualization of your inputs and outputs and how you make those adjustments, but please do feel free to reach out directly to Kevin or myself and you can find our bios and contact details on Kevin, thank you so much for joining me today on Office Hours with EAB.

0:25:53.5 KS: Great. Thank you, Camilla, I really enjoyed it, and appreciate the opportunity.

0:26:00.7 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we discuss why it’s not easy being green for Kermit the Frog or for a university that’s serious about making their campus energy efficient and sustainable. Until then, thank you for your time.

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