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How to Recruit Adult Career Switchers

Episode 145

April 4, 2023 29 minutes


EAB’s Beth Donaldson and David Kuehl discuss how to reach prospective graduate school students who are looking to switch careers and enroll in business programs that may be very different from their undergraduate field of study. They encourage institutions to develop a data-driven approach to identify this unique student population and craft messages that will resonate with them.

Beth and David also offer tips on ways to eliminate administrative obstacles and on the importance of focusing your marketing messages around the expected return your students can expect to see on their education investment.



0:00:12.7 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Our experts today share tips on how to reach a growing population of adult learners who are interested in graduate degree programs that will help them switch careers. We’ll talk about their needs and preferences, but also about how to help them clear hurdles that might trip them up as they enter programs that may be quite different from their undergraduate studies. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:42.9 Dave Kuehl: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Dave Kuehl and I’m a managing director on the strategy in the ventures team here at EAB. One of my jobs is spending time and listening to university leaders to understand really what’s keeping them up at night, what are some of those challenges and perhaps even opportunities that are on those minds. And with the help of my colleagues, we work to identify solutions that can help address those.

0:01:09.7 DK: One of the most common areas of focus for senior university leaders today is finding a new way to go graduate enrollment and to help overcome what we see as the ever strengthening headwinds that are depressing those undergraduate enrollments really across America. And with so many universities chasing that double digit growth and graduate enrollment, the competition has undoubtedly gotten fierce. Joining me on the podcast today is my colleague Beth Donaldson, who’s been studying this phenomenon for some time and who has written an article about how to reach a particular demographic of prospective graduate school students that require a slightly different approach, but who are well worth the investment. Welcome to the program, Beth.

0:01:48.9 Beth Donaldson: Thanks so much, Dave. It’s great to be here.

0:01:51.5 DK: And it is wonderful to have you. Beth, before we dive in, why don’t you describe a little bit about your role here at EAB and the work that you do?

0:02:00.8 BD: Sure. As a managing director of our Adult Learner Consulting services, what that means is that I spend most of my time having conversations with institutions on how they can navigate both the opportunities and the real challenges in educating today’s adult learners. We really wanna help our partners to think strategically as they’re grappling with just as you mentioned, changes in undergraduate trends and growth opportunities on the graduate and adult learner side.

0:02:28.1 DK: How about before we dig into the particulars, would you mind just giving us a little context around the competitive landscape that you’re seeing for graduate enrollments today? And tell us why maybe some of those same old recruiting playbook aren’t going to deliver what has become almost a mythical double digit growth for the university leadership that they’re looking for?

0:02:48.0 BD: Yeah, I would love to, I think first and foremost, the graduate landscape has, as you mentioned, just become increasingly highly competitive as we’ve really had more entrance into this space. But also I think the emphasis on really long-term graduate providers really thinking strategically about how they grow this market. And I think as institutions have been really grappling with their undergraduate college decline in college going rates, I think they’ve really been basing their strategic plans on growing their adult learner population. And by growth, I mean extremely large growth of double digits. And what the actual market is showing us, what we’ve seen in the last two years is that graduate enrollment has only increased about 2.5%, right? And so there’s definitely a disconnect and so we are having a lot of conversations with institutional leaders about the resources that they need to increase their market share of adult learners, while also setting realistic enrollment goals, right? That will build up across time.

0:03:58.6 DK: Excellent. And when you talk about those resources and what’s on the mind of the university leaders, is it safe to say that schools are perhaps coming around to the idea that they’re going to need more sophisticated data-driven approaches to segment their market and really tailor their strategies and the recruiting messages a little bit more than we see today?

0:04:16.4 BD: Yeah. I think what I’ve seen, first and foremost, leadership is becoming more aware of the need to better define and identify the right market, I think as you know, graduate and adult degree completion leads are notoriously challenging to find and nurture and convert. And so leadership is starting to really think strategically about how they expand the traditional marketing that may be geared towards these students in a particular discipline or industry. I think institutions really have to be thoughtful as they develop better data-driven approaches to get that level of sophistication that they need really, and being able to have that granular data to get better results. And so enrollment leaders really have to have the bandwidth and expertise to be able to slice and dice the market and customize their messages to meet the needs of a various different types of prospective students and the adult learner space.

0:05:14.4 DK: Understood. And so Beth, you mentioned that effort to slice and dice the market data. I know you’ve come across a growing population of prospective graduate students which do share some interesting characteristics. What can you tell us about these particular populations?

0:05:33.5 BD: Yeah, I think what’s so interesting about this population is they have so many different characteristics, right? There’s not a one size fits all. I think first we found that they tend to have a lot high level of career changers in both the business and graduate perspective pool. And so just over about 40% of those students are actually saying, I’m in a different field and I’m really considering business at this point. The other thing that we found is that the leads may not have been undergraduate business majors, right? They may have majored in psychology, they may have majored in social work. And so now that they’ve had some time in the field, they are interested in business focus graduate programs and specifically more of the highly specialized master’s programs, right? And so I think they’re looking at very clearly data analytics as an option to pursue or supply change management, or even marketing as potential area that they actually wanna be able to move into.

0:06:37.8 BD: And I think really thinking about this population, there’s not a set persona, right? That identifies in this group, right? They may be straight out of undergraduate and so looking to explore graduate programs with little to no business experience, right? Or they actually like maybe Gen X, like me, so out in the field, they’re interested in particularly like changing their career to achieve a promotion or gaining skills, right? To move into a new sector.

0:07:10.4 BD: And I think as we think about this market, and we do a lot of research with EAB and use a lot of research right from our partners, when we look at the potential student survey of the G map last year, we do know that students are returning to earn a graduate degree in the business field, are more likely to have five plus years removed from graduating with their bachelor’s. And so what this means is that they’re even more pragmatic as they think about which programs to consider, right? And because they’re juggling life. And by life I mean that they’re working full-time. They may have a spouse or partner, they may have children, or they may be a caregiver for an elderly parent. And so it means that they have to find the time to fit in pursuing a degree. And so institutions really have to think about how they interact and educate this population more and more.

0:08:10.0 DK: Excellent. Very interesting that you spoke to kind of the interest in some of the specialized degrees, Beth. I think a lot of the university leaders that I talk to are very focused on drawing career switchers into maybe traditional MBA programs, executive MBA programs. I think you mentioned marketing as one of the specialized degrees that have been on the minds of a lot of this population. Any other areas of specialized business programs that you tend to see this population gravitate towards?

0:08:37.0 BD: Sure. I think a lot are interested in finance, right? We hear a lot of that in the media and the opportunities there. And then also I think data analytics. And what that does mean though is that if they weren’t a major on the undergrad level in business, they may need some help, some prerequisite courses, some academic support, academic preparation to actually move into these specialized fields. And so I think we really have to be strategic about supporting the adult learners that are coming into a new area of space.

0:09:08.3 DK: Understood. Makes a lot of sense. And you had mentioned that there’s definitely a need to communicate with this population differently depending on their motivation, what they’re looking for in an institution and their program. It would be really helpful if you to dive into some of those key differences.

0:09:24.9 BD: Yeah, definitely. I think as adult learners are really considering their program, we know that they want information at their fingertips. They don’t have a lot of time to do this research, right? And so they’re thinking strategically about how this will work out for them. They also are used to seeing so many brands every day and so customization is key. They feel as though you’re going to know who they are, what their needs are, and to be able to meet those needs, right? We know about adult learners that their preferences is definitely to be able to get this desired outcome. And so by that, they prefer the mode of online instruction, but they also wanna network as well.

0:10:10.0 BD: So that’s really key for them as they’re thinking about next steps. And so having the opportunity to have your website, be your key recruiter to get that information to students is something that we’re talking a lot with our partners so that students really understand that value proposition that your institution will present to them.

0:10:33.5 DK: Understood. And you know, some of these insights sound like they would be applicable to nearly all adult learners, but what do you find best that really sets the career switches apart in this regard?

0:10:45.6 BD: Yeah. The career changers are exactly right. Are highly motivated to find a program that’s going to be able as they think about the deficits that they may have. So developing those skill is really key and important for them in this new area. They also will need more support in experiential learning opportunities so how they build a stronger portfolio when they’re applying for a job after graduation. And so they’re thinking strategically about how you support your adult learners with career support in finding an internship or job placement once they leave, because transitioning into the right field after graduation is key for a career changer. If I’m someone who’s right now in the education field and teaching, and I want to move into that business space, I wanna be able to have the understanding that this is actually happening for students that attend your institution specifically. And I can see myself also achieving those goals.

0:11:47.3 DK: That outcomes focus makes so much sense to me. I’m curious, Beth, if you’ve seen in the wild or general best practices in terms of how that is being accentuated to prospective students and/or how are they finding those nuggets of information as they’re looking at program opportunities?

0:12:04.0 BD: Yeah, most definitely I think a lot of institutions have been strategic on having that cost versus value, so affordability and then tying it to outcomes and return education. So they’ve been really clear in their website about job titles that may be specifically in this industry, average salary for that industry as well. But adult learners and specifically career changers are looking for more specificity, right? They want to know clearly a student at your institution has been able to accomplish the goal. And so for example, as I mentioned before, I think when you’re marketing to students, they wanna see a student who is straight out of college, who’ve been able to be able to move from a psychology degree into your MBA program, and now they’re actually been able to start a marketing job with the level of information on their average salary, right? And so really being able to capture where your students are when they begin and where they are when they leave, is really helpful information to share in your emails to them and on your website specifically, because that’s where they’re gonna go to get a lot of information.

0:13:23.7 DK: Excellent. I’m glad you touched on that theme of return on education. It makes so much sense if we put ourselves, I think, in the shoes of these prospective students. And so understanding that return on education, certainly you’d mentioned the importance of the flexibility between a mix of maybe hybrid or online modalities, in course modalities. Anything else that you would recommend being top of mind as these university leaders are thinking about what’s gonna resonate most with these prospective students and this career switcher population in particular, Beth?

0:13:54.1 BD: Yeah, I think really being clear in how you support your adult learner students inside and outside of the classroom, we’re finding that these students are really looking for a sense of belongingness and so they really wanna clearly see if you have academic support, if you have online support of education, as I mentioned, career support specifically for these students because they really have to make a clear decision and a sacrifice in enrolling in your program. And so it has to be worth their time, their money, and real clear expectations on what to expect, right?

0:14:34.2 BD: As I mentioned, if they’ve been out in the field for five years, and this is new to them to go back for a graduate program, they really wanna be able to understand how they are supported each and every step of the way. And so as opposed to just thinking about access, we’re thinking about and helping our partners about retention and outcomes and really putting all of that in terms of a package together for students to be able to see at the start.

0:15:01.3 DK: And do you find that the way institutions are describing that support looks different or the kind of traditional legacy in-person student versus what we see the rise of online and hybrid students today?

0:15:17.5 BD: Yeah, I think historically it’s been different and I think we definitely have to model some of the great practices for undergrad for now graduate students, right? And so thinking strategically, that graduate and adult learners need support, right? When we survey students, they really talked about the importance of their connection with faculty, but also their connection with peer to peer, right? They wanna know that they can learn best practices from each other, be able to be in the industry also, and have a connection to really be able to be successful.

0:15:54.3 BD: And then also really thinking about strategically mental health, and how we support them as they’re balancing life. This is so key and important to all of us, but we’ve seen definitely a rise of importance within Gen Z students, really focusing on institutions that can meet all of their needs, both professional and personal as they think about this option, right? For their future.

0:16:20.4 DK: Lots of great insights there in terms of, I think, what resonates with prospective students today, what they’re looking for is they’re looking across the landscape of programs and institutions available to them. But the ever important question that I hear a lot from the university leaders that we’re speaking with, Beth, how do we find these prospective students who really fit this mold? How are we engaging them? And then how are we nurturing them all the way through to enrollment?

0:16:49.7 BD: That is the million dollar question, right? How do we find these students? And I think really thinking holistically about finding the right student and being in the right markets for these students. I think, really leveraging a diverse lead generation and strategy is key. A lot of institutions have been able to create those four plus one programs and be able to keep their undergraduate students, but also thinking about young alums that may have graduated within that three to seven year space. I think being strategic to think, not just about students that may be within the discipline and program, right? We would love to have all of the undergraduate business students from other four year institutions attend our graduate program, but as I mentioned before, thinking out of the box, right? Really looking at social work or psychology or the fits that are definitely there in terms of data analytics to supply chain.

0:17:52.1 BD: And I think really being creative in which how you promote your brand is key. If you have strong faculty expertise in supply chain management, that’s something to lean in on. That’s something that prior to the pandemic, none of us were really thinking about, but now that is definitely something that we know is important to best case business strategies, right? And then we’ve historically always relied on test scores takers as kind of that one main option, but really thinking strategically about how you leverage a diverse lead generation strategy to find candidates that you may have otherwise missed in the opportunities.

0:18:32.7 BD: And so really thinking about incorporating high intent sources such as Cappex for adult learners. And I know that at EAB, we’ve really been strategic in being able to build out that population specifically to be able to have more lead strategy that’s more cost effective. And I know that Dave, you’ve done a lot of this great work with growing the adult learner population. So I would love for you to share a little bit about Cappex has really evolved within the EAB portfolio.

0:19:06.4 DK: Yes. Beth, you make a great mention of the work we’ve been doing with Cappex for adult learners. I’ve certainly been spending a lot of time there and I think important to understand the impetus for this work for us, it really comes from wanting to activate a net new population of leads for the institution that we work with. And importantly, it’s getting at these perspective students really, while they’re still in that consideration process of the funnel of their research process. What that means is they may not know the exact institution or exact program that they’re looking for. And what the Cappex platform is able to do for these prospective adult learners is find them out there in the digital ecosystem, but importantly draw them into a platform where we’re learning more about their preferences as a student, as well as them as a student contact information, demographic information, geographic location, but also what are they looking for modality wise? Programs of interest, time horizon to enrollment, and then of course we do garner a piece of information you touched on earlier, Beth, and that’s years of work experience.

0:20:11.8 DK: But the important part is all of that information fuels a matching algorithm that introduces all the various institutions and programs at those institutions that fit the mold for that student really to aid that research process. Cappex is a comprehensive directory of all institutions that have these graduate programs that students are looking for, so it really serves as the trusted resource for those students that they’re able to browse institutions, programs, and then save these various institutions and really showing they’re raising their hand for interest in those institutions to learn more. Importantly, what does this look like for the partners that we work with, the different colleges and universities that are looking for these prospective students looking to fill the top of their funnel with these high intent leads?

0:20:57.7 DK: And so for the partners we work with, there’s a couple different avenues. First and foremost is that we’re understanding what is the volume of interest that we’re looking to fuel the campaigns that they’re activating on their campus today and in what fields of study? Today we’re working with institutions across graduate business programs that ever elusive adult degree completer, even healthcare related fields and more to come as the platform expands. But as a partner, you’re able to work with us, define what you’re looking for in a student, what field of studies specifically, and then as we are working with these different institutions, they’re able even to create richer, more multimedia content of their profile, their institution and their programs on the Cappex platform. We are able to then really inject that into their profile, make sure that we’re getting the most amount of prospective student eyeballs on those profiles as those matches are presented to the students.

0:21:56.8 DK: And then the rubber really meets the road when those students are raising their hand, saving those institution profiles as their favorites, wanting to learn more, and we’re able to provide those leads who are institution partners really every 24 hours. Beth, you mentioned the importance of two things. One is being able to follow up with these prospective students quickly and expeditiously as they’re looking for more information, understanding application requirements but getting to that ever important application stage. And then also being able to understand more about that student, more about that lead by way of the information we’re garnering on Cappex so that we can be communicating with those folks in a more customized manner once the institution is receiving that lead and slotting that lead into their various communication pathways.

0:22:42.9 BD: Dave, I love that. Thank you so much for that context. Can you gimme a sense right now of how many partners we’re actually working with in this space to help them with generating more leads?

0:22:54.1 DK: Absolutely. The number seems to be increasing every week, but the latest number that I have on hand is we are working with about 65 different institutions across the Cappex for adult learner work.

0:23:05.7 BD: Oh, that’s great.

0:23:10.8 DK: One thing that I would ask here, Beth, as I talk a little bit about Cappex is, how are you seeing leaders looking to build adult learners into their overall strategy?

0:23:23.3 BD: So Dave, thanks so much for providing that thorough overview of Cappex. It’s so important because what we’re finding is that leaders are doubling down on graduate, and specifically within kind of three key areas, first and foremost being healthcare, nursing, and business. So as I mentioned before, we have so many new entrants into this space, but then so many existing business programs saying that they want to grow their enrollment and they’re all doing it and thinking about it in the same way, right? Increasing their online modality, increasing their specialized programs, trying to attract international students so stemifying their MBA programs as well is something that they’re thinking about. And so I think that for those institutions that really wanna make headwinds here and really increase their market share, they have to be strategic in finding new sources. And so if that’s Cappex, using that as a platform to find high intent, really looking at where their strengths and faculty expertise may lie.

0:24:34.5 BD: And so thinking about building out their corporate partnerships within the business field, but in a variety of the different fields, as we mentioned before, right? If they have existing partnerships with school districts, seeing how they can leverage that to grow their market shares specifically within their business programs, right? And then strategically then thinking about what has happened with students in the past, how they can re-engage students in this process, and so key and important, customizing the marketing messages to students, that will really increase their lead to inquiry, their inquiry to application, and then really finding the right fit students who will retain and become great alums of the institution. Just so key and important.

0:25:21.0 DK: All right, Beth, thank you for all the insights here. I feel like we could go on for hours kind of peeling back to layers of these different insights. But in summary, I would love to hear about how we can make some of these insights actionable. If you had three minutes in a room with a university leader, a dean of graduate studies, what are the top three things you’re making sure to hit on that you’d like to impart to them?

0:25:45.4 BD: All right, thanks Dave. I think there’s so much that I would like to share, but in the essence of time, I think really first and foremost, really thinking about strategically, how you can make this opportunity a reality for students. And by that I mean being very deliberate in removing enrollment barriers or obstacles for potential students. We would love to have a cadre of information of every applicant, but really thinking strategically about, is it really necessary to require two to three teacher recommendations or faculty recommendations for students that are applying to your programs, as opposed to really looking at their education experience so that students can really, who are very pragmatic in this process, be able to apply and get an admission decision from you quickly. And then I think too, really thinking about, as we talked a lot about earlier, is how you communicate that return on education.

0:26:43.5 BD: I think first and foremost, understanding what your unique differentiation experiences are for students, how their skill development happens, and then quite frankly, what are your students doing when they graduate from the institution and how you’ve been able to transform their life so that they’ve been able to achieve both their professional and professional goals. And then I think thirdly, really thinking about how you are able to create and leverage a diverse lead generation strategy to find those candidates, right? You don’t wanna miss any student who may be thinking about this. We know that specifically for business graduate students, they are ready to get that information at their fingertips and so your website is really key. How you relay the information on your website and how you’re able to really connect it to your cost versus value in your value proposition is really key for those students.

0:27:44.4 BD: And then thinking strategically about how your admissions team is really actually able to reach out to those students with a customized message is really key for them to understand and to make the right decision. As they’re thinking about your institution and maybe one or two other institutions, which is the best place for them to pursue the opportunity, is really key. So using those digital platforms, as I mentioned before, to find high intent students because the goal here is to be able to find a lead, convert them to an application quickly, and then be able to onboard your students seamlessly into the graduate program. So I hope that that was helpful today, and it’s been such a pleasure to be able to chat more with you about adult learner students.

0:28:33.1 DK: Yeah. Thank you, Beth. This has been great stuff. Really appreciate the time that you spent with us today. And also a thank you to our listeners. Thank you all for joining the EAB Podcast.


0:28:52.8 S1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we look at some very real and practical ways that virtual reality tools are being used by more and more colleges to help them recruit students and give them a more effective way to master complex course material. Until next week, thank you for your time.


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