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Insights from EAB's Survey of Graduate and Adult Learners

Episode 75

October 12, 2021 32 minutes


EAB’s Amy Luitjens and Will Lamb dig into our latest survey of adult learners to find out how their plans were impacted by the pandemic and to understand their current preferences and motivations. The survey findings suggest that schools will need to hone their recruitment and retention strategies to make any headway in a graduate education market that appears to be losing steam.

Amy and Will offer a number of recommendations including beefing up online support services and clearly articulating the “return on education” behind your graduate programs to counteract increased price sensitivity.



0:00:11.1 Speaker 1: Welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today we’re going to dig into EAB’s latest survey of more than 2000 adult and graduate students to learn how the pandemic impacted their education plans. Our experts will also share what we’ve learned about the preferences and motivations that are driving decisions that today’s students take on where, when and whether they apply. Thank you for listening and enjoy.

0:00:44.5 Amy: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Across 2020 and early 2021, graduate programs are one of the few growing segments in higher education. The gold rush is likely behind us, with graduate enrollment projected to grow by less than 1% across the next decade, while traditional undergraduate enrollment is declining with no end in sight. Institutions that fail to target and adapt to better serve the needs of adult learners, do so at their own peril, but we’re here to discuss awareness and strategies institutions can build to offset these challenges. I’m delighted to be joined today by my colleague, Will Lamb, to share findings from EAB’s most recent research effort around the adult learner market. Hi, Will.

0:01:25.9 Will Lamb: Hi, how are you today, Amy?

0:01:29.0 Amy: I am great, how are you?

0:01:30.4 WL: Good.

0:01:32.6 Amy: What can you tell us about the paper that we’ve just released, Will?

0:01:35.1 WL: Alright, so this is an update actually to a series of surveys that we’ve done over a number of years, so this builds on prior knowledge. One of the general points I’d make about this year’s survey is that a lot of what it does is confirm the themes that we’ve seen in the past as to what’s important to prospective students, what they’re thinking about, how you can stand out in the market and how you can make sure you’re appealing to them. This summer also, the survey we did this represents the first chance we’ve had to get a large volume of hard data about how people are feeling at this point in the pandemic, after a pretty long stretch of time where people have had to adapt and adjust to the new world that we’re living in today. So this summer in June, we collected data from 2234 participants looking for all different kinds of programs in different age groups, working full-time, working part-time, looking for different modalities and different disciplines, and we also included in this group of students, a number of international students, a good number of international students, who are considering programs in the US. And so what we’re gonna pull out for everybody today are some of the things that we’ve noticed are the most interesting findings from this survey, and may talk a little bit about some of the themes from the prior surveys, but especially wanted to update everybody, especially in light of the pandemic.

0:03:10.2 WL: Now, one of the themes that came out that we’ve talked about a lot, Amy, is this issue of differential impact on people for the pandemic, that not everyone’s being hit the same way. Could you tell us a little bit about what you see in the results with regard to that?

0:03:27.6 Amy: Yeah, so at a high level, I think some of the key points may not necessarily surprise our listeners because they themselves experience them in all different segments of their lives throughout the pandemic. So what we learned was that the impacts were mixed. So some were positive, some were negative. So for some who accelerated their graduate school search, working from home, saved communing time, and they felt much more comfortable pursuing an opportunity to increase their education and had the flexibility to do that, particularly using online means. But for others, and again, I don’t think this will surprise folks, but it definitely was a key point in our findings, increased demands at home, with childcare, particularly with kids enrolled in virtual learning or not having childcare, and then of course, just the health and both physical and mental impacts of the pandemic, significantly decreased the amount of time that folks could consider really pragmatically approaching education, and for that reason, really stalled out.

0:04:32.4 Amy: So again, I think that those things are factors we’ve all grappled with, both the acceleration and the deceleration as we’ve moved through the pandemic in different areas of our lives, but those two findings at a high level really drove subsequent findings. I think when it comes to looking at our findings from an equity perspective, some key takeaways that we really wanted to highlight for our listeners today are ones that, for me, certainly gave me pause and are important for us to think about institutionally as we’re shaping our strategies and seeking not only to enroll students, but creating institutional resources and strategies to serve them. So for instance, one of the key questions that we asked student respondents was, has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your educational plans negatively? And what we found was quite striking. So more than half of Asian students we surveyed said their enrollment plans were impacted by the pandemic, more than half, 52.4%.

0:05:32.5 Amy: A couple of the students we surveyed shared that the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic discouraged them from pursuing graduate education right now as well. We also found that 45% of African, African American and Black students, and 30% of Hispanic Latinx students said their educational plans… Their enrollment plans were affected by the pandemic negatively. Now, that compares to only a quarter of their White peers saying the same. So what we find is that the equity gaps that existed when we were all striving to counter-act during and before the pandemic are now only exacerbated by some of these things we talked about at the outset. And additionally, now, that Will mentioned that the survey does include international students, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a moment to just talk very quickly about them.

0:06:21.0 Amy: And I don’t think this will surprise folks, and Will, I would love for your thoughts on this as well, just from an overall market scan, but what we learned from our findings in this particular survey is that 60% of international students said the pandemic changed their plans compared to 28% of their domestic counterparts, and as comes as no surprise, given what we know about how difficult it was simply just to move around during the pandemic, these students, these international students, cited things like travel restrictions, difficulty obtaining a visa, etcetera, as reasons they couldn’t pursue graduate education in the States. Though, of course too, there’s a number of different reports that we all saw prior to the pandemic that discussed international students’ reticence to come to the US out of fear for their own safety and some of those unfortunate, similar either perceived or real hate threats that we noted earlier when we were talking about domestic Asian students.

0:07:13.6 Amy: In addition to that, students, of course, who said that the pandemic negatively impacted their plans, noted things like financial situations changing, mental and physical health and familiar circumstances changing as well. So we know that the international student population here in the US was already on a decline prior to pandemic, but certainly factors that we might have expected exacerbated that exponentially during the last 18 months or so. Will, would you add anything about this group in particular?

0:07:42.9 WL: My takeaway from the survey is that there’s more signs in this survey that the downward trend and international student interest in US programs, or the downward trend in their ability to attend US programs is still in place, and it’s likely to take a long time to turn around. I don’t expect that to improve. Another really interesting finding related to diversity that stood out to us this year is we saw a statistically significantly larger number of people saying they really were looking at the class’s diversity, the student body diversity of an institution as a defining characteristic of how they were gonna pick a school. So in prior years, we had a pretty stable result around a 3.0 out of 5 in terms of student body diversity as an important factor in picking my school. And this year it was 3.24. That means about 400 people out of the 2000 ranked it a whole point higher in importance than they would have just 18 months ago when we last did the survey. So that could be a temporary uptick in a greater awareness, resulting from the social conversation that’s occurring right now in the country, but it’ll be interesting to see if that cements as being something we need to talk more about and emphasize when we’re promoting programs for folks.

0:09:09.2 Amy: And I think that as we move our conversation to thinking about strategies that might align with some of these concerns. A few of them that we think a lot about as we’re working with our partners, range from thinking about an evaluation of… On the front end of the process, as you’re welcoming and recruiting students, how you might evaluate and potentially modify your admission procedures and policies to better attract students and help them feel as if you’re removing barriers to their enrollment, and at the same time serve those students once they’re enrolled. We’ll talk about those strategies more in just a moment, but before we get too far down that road, what I’d like to also have us highlight is what we learned in the survey about students’ price sensitivity, and how important pricing is to the students that we heard from this year in particular. Will, would you mind sharing that with the group?

0:09:58.4 WL: Yeah, it may not be surprising to people that in bad times economically or uncertain times economically, that people got more price-sensitive than we had seen in prior surveys, 47.7% of respondents who decided not to go to school said that price was a driving factor in that decision and 48% of African, African-American, and Black students surveyed said the high cost of attendance was their main obstacle to enrolling in a program. Those are both higher numbers to a statistically significant degree than we saw in prior versions of the survey. So price sensitivity is up, and I feel like price sensitivity in prior recessions where things seem to be following a pattern people might be used to, you might see price sensitivity, but you might see people taking the plunge, borrowing, making the financial commitment to go back to school because they feel we’re on a trajectory to get out of the situation that we’re in right now. I think one of the interesting things about this phenomenon is a lot of these survey results point to people not sure what to do and not seeing clearly where the light is at the end of the tunnel yet.

0:11:18.5 WL: So some of the takeaways when we think about pricing have to do with your actual price, making sure your price makes sense relative to competitors, taking a hard look at ideas like differential pricing across disciplines or across different kinds of credentials. The actual price is something important to be considering, for instances this year for a price increase or not, and how big of an increase is a reasonable increase to shoot for, but there’s also just the issue of how you’re talking about price. And we’ve seen this for a long time, anecdotally and in survey data, that one of the most important things you can do is emphasize on your website, in your campaign materials and as your counselors are talking to folks, to emphasize return on education, to make as persuasive a case as you can that this is gonna be worth the price, whatever the price may be. And I think we see a lot of cases where schools don’t do as good a job as they could, talking about return on education, and a lot of schools, I’d say, in my experience, probably at least 90% of the schools I work with, make it really hard to find out what the total cost is gonna be.

0:12:30.9 WL: They make you do your own math, they make you go to the Treasurer’s Office or the bursar’s office, and there’s asterisks and clauses and special things about the price that someone has to figure out, and a lot of prospective students end up quizzy about what this is really gonna cost. And I think even though it’s a high price and you may be nervous about sharing the total price for a graduate program with someone, it’s smartest in the long run to go ahead and be up front about it. Is that in line with what you see when you’re talking to folks out there?

0:13:06.1 Amy: Absolutely, absolutely. And I do think that sometimes when we’re on campus and working so hard day to day, it’s so difficult to just take a minute, take a step back and try to look at your processes and how you look from an externally facing perspective to students from a common sense standpoint. And it’s simply a function of the fact that folks often are just so busy and have so many things on their plate, but I do think that there’s also, like you mentioned, some reticence around being as absolutely crystal clear as possible about what net cost might be. I think that ways to counteract some of that overwhelm generally, and then also that fear are exactly like what you talked about. So first and foremost, having a really good handle on what it is that your students pay, being very clear about it at the outset, and then feeling really confident about the outcomes that they’re going to get from pursuing an education at your institution, and I think being able to link those, like Will said, is so critically important, and I think it ties really nicely to another strategy that… A series of strategies rather that we would suggest that I mentioned earlier when we are working with institutions to help set them up for success as much as possible in attracting students in the first place.

0:14:24.8 Amy: We know that adult learners, based on what we’ve heard from them, can take as long as 18 months to three years to be considering your program. They’re looking at your website more than ever and looking at you in comparison with probably a handful of other programs often that they would consider to be in line with what they’re looking for. And where institutions can find additional competitive advantage outside of the pricing piece is in thinking about how your admission procedures and policies and how you communicate them really help students think about seeing themselves at your institution, or instead, unfortunately serve as a barrier to them furthering their consideration of you in the first place, right? So what we mean by that is we learned from students this year, and I’ve heard this in the past, but this year, to put a fine point on it in the survey, that things like the application fee, GPA requirements, meaning cut-offs, degree prerequisites and essay requirement, all of those things were called out by respondents to our survey as things that prevented them from moving forward in a process or gave them pause, so as you…

0:15:32.6 WL: Now, I wanna say that application fee has always kind of driven me crazy ’cause you’re turning people off for $70 when they’re looking at something that’s gonna cost tens of thousands of dollars.

0:15:42.2 Amy: That’s right.

0:15:42.8 WL: Now, it may seem nuts for 25% of our respondents to tell us year in and year out, I didn’t apply to a place because they had an app fee, when they’re making a huge investment, and you would think $70 wouldn’t weigh very heavily against that huge investment, but we see again and again that it does.

0:16:01.7 Amy: And I would say, Will, too…

0:16:04.0 WL: And the GPA requirement is the other one that really gets in my craw. I think it’s fine to have a GPA requirement when you’re considering files and you’re deciding who to admit, I think it’s a mistake to put the GPA minimum or the GPA requirement on your web page, because people you might waive the GPA requirement for are gonna self-disqualify and your pool is gonna shrink as a result.

0:16:23.9 Amy: That’s right. Yup, and I would say the counteracts, the two sets of concerns that might arise very naturally from removing those two things are, in my experience, and Will I’d love your thoughts here too, some of the following. So for example, if you feel like you can’t remove an application fee requirement because your institution is dependent on that revenue, for example, if you’re a large institution where the unit that’s managing your applications relies on those fees to run their unit, I think there are ways in which you can meet in the middle and say, We can set up criteria where we would wave an application fee, and we very clearly not only post that on our website, but we use it as a marketing tool, so we use it as a way to reach out to students to say, We’ll waive your application fee, and you can decide who those students are that you wanna attract, but I think given what we shared at the outset about equity gaps, at this particular moment in time, it’s a really important consideration. The other thing I’d…

0:17:18.1 WL: Having the fee so I could waive it is one of the only things I like about having a fee. Using it as an urgency labor, I like as a strategy, and I see that as a perfectly reasonable thing to do, but I think you either have to be aggressive about being ready to waive it or you have to just drop the idea. The founder of Royall & Company, Bill Royall, used to call the app fee a dream killer, because you’re putting a hurdle in front of somebody and the only people who are stopped by that hurdle are the people most in need of the education that you’re providing.

0:17:51.2 Amy: That’s right, that’s right.

0:17:53.0 WL: I think that’s important. When we’re thinking about pricing, another piece of return education that came out of the survey I’d like to hear your thoughts on, Amy, was the issue of Student Services and what looks like an increased importance of student services to this year’s respondence.

0:18:10.0 Amy: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think that as may not come to the surprise of any of our listeners, historically, students, of course, have said, what’s important for them when they’re making an enrollment decision, that the length of the program or the time required to complete their degree was one of the most, if not the most, important thing, right? Particularly for adult students, that’s not a surprise, given everything else that they’re considering or managing through. What was interesting this year is that like Will alluded to, online support services actually trumped that by just a small, fractional margin, but I think it’s an important one, because what we’re hearing from students is not only that they’re looking to complete their degree as quickly as possible and do it in a way that’s flexible for them, but what they need, and they’re saying explicitly, they’re telling institutions they need, is that support to get to the finish line. And so as an institution, as you’re thinking about bringing these students in the door, equal attention really needs to be paid to how you’re helping students move through the process on the front end and all the way through to graduation, and I think that historically we’ve done…

0:19:16.0 Amy: Or increasingly, we’ve done a good job of doing this with the traditional undergraduate student success space, right? So we have advisors, we have wraparound services, in some cases, we have excellent career, career prep services and some graduate and professional programs do, but it’s not just a matter of those services anymore, it’s really thinking about tailoring the services and access to services, quite frankly, that you can provide for students who are sitting in an online space at this moment in time and thinking about how those resources need to be different and kind to support students who are moving through the online process. So it’s not just a matter of replicating resources that might exist or have existed for boots on the ground students, but rather thinking about how the online experience is different for students, particularly moving through the pandemic and how best to serve them at this moment in time as they move through the program. Will, I think you wanted to chime in.

0:20:12.6 WL: Yeah, we’ve seen an increased interest in school, based on what we see in the campaigns we run for folks. We see an increased interest in school, and we see a decreased willingness to pull the trigger and enroll, and I think that the uncertainty we’re living through points to why that’s happening and people are hanging up, they can’t quite make the commitment because things keep looking like they’re getting better and then not getting better, and that’s got people in a bit of a tizzy. And I just think that your support services, you may already have outstanding support services, but I’m certain you’re not talking about them enough when you market your program and talk to prospects about your program. That’s a lesson we probably always could have benefited from, but it’s more important now than ever. People just spent 18 months figuring out how to stay in their house or not travel for business yet make everything else in their life work, and they’ve gotten used to companies adapting to their needs and finding new ways to serve them so they can make things work. I think if you wanna get people off the dime and have them more willing to enroll, a good way to inspire that would be to do everything Amy’s talking about, to not just have better support services, but really talk about the ways in which we’re gonna help you and what it will mean when you become a part of our community.

0:21:35.5 Amy: I think that’s actually a great segue, Will, to talking a little bit about what else we learn from students about online learning generally in the survey. I’m wondering if you might reflect on that a bit.

0:21:46.2 WL: Yeah, so we had already seen, and it was no news to anyone, before the pandemic, a shift toward online graduate enrollments, the online… Exclusively online programs were growing at nearly 7% a year for the period 2014 to 2019, and face-to-face enrollments are contracting. So the market, while it was going up slightly, all of the growth was really accounted for in terms of growth in exclusively online enrollments. And historically, we had a pretty robust finding that about 25% of prospects were actively looking for online only and about 25% of prospects were avoiding online at all costs, and about 50% in the middle, were open to doing online or not. The modality wasn’t their most important criterion for picking a program. They were willing to consider online but they weren’t actively looking for it. And one of the things we found in this survey is, first of all, about 60% of respondents told us that online learning during remote learning in the pandemic was a positive experience. That’s potentially more positive than a lot of us would have thought in terms of a reaction to what was happening. I know it was pretty negative the first semester when we had to switch mid-term, and it freaked a lot of people out in terms of faculty and staff and students, but as we had a summer to prepare for the next fall and a year of adapting to online learning people seem to have had a much better experience with it.

0:23:21.3 WL: The other thing I’ll say is that instead of the old figure we’re used to seeing where 25% of folks said, I’m looking for an online program, this year, it was 39.2%. So we had a big increase in how many people said, “I’m actively looking for an online program.” Now, we still had a lot of survey respondents who said, “I thought I hated online learning, and now I’m sure I do.” And so that 25% who are not going to go online, they probably have good reasons, it’s not for them, and they probably haven’t changed their mind. But the people in that middle who might have been open to going either way, it looks like more and more of them are skewing online, and I think there’s a really good chance that it’s gonna end up shifting or accelerating the shift toward online learning that we’ve been seeing. Along with this, the survey really makes it clear how important the website is to the prospects. So we saw 90% of students telling us that a good website makes them feel better about your school, and 85% of them saying a bad website makes them think worse of your school, and the majority of students are saying the website is the most important thing or one of the top two most important things as they’re making a decision.

0:24:44.4 Amy: Yeah, and I would just add on to that, Will, sorry listeners, not only another finding we found, but how it relates to what Will’s talking about. Many of us know that during the pandemic, it was, among many other things, difficult for students to take standardized tests. For some time, those test programs, like everything else in our lives, was shut down at a time when test taking was already on a decline. So one of the things that our survey found was that nearly three times as many students in the survey this year, so about 30%, said that they planned to not take a graduate admission test. And just one year ago, it was only 10%, so quite a striking change, about 20 points in one year, and yes, like I said, some of that may be attributable to the fact it likely is that those tests just weren’t as available, but many institutions, many institutions, which are probably on the line right now, decided to take a pause on requiring those tests.

0:25:42.8 Amy: And so we don’t know that that will continue to be the case going forward, though I don’t think we would be surprised to see that happen and also continue to see students be reticent to take the test. So there are a number of impacts we can see from them, but one of them, of course, is that there just won’t be quite as many student test taker names that we can market to. And so that’s all the more important reason why, like Will was talking about, that your website really needs to be as helpful and a front door as possible for the students who are considering you that you may not even yet know about. Certainly optimizing that website, of course, important. Will, are there other sources that you would recommend that schools really be thinking about as they understand more and more how difficult it can be to find those students?

0:26:29.2 WL: Well, I think you have to have a coherent approach to communicating with them and nurturing them. One of the things we saw this year is that a substantial number of the people we’re talking to said they’re gonna take 18 months or more, or have taken 18 months or more to make up their mind about what they’re gonna do, that reticence about actually enrolling that we’ve seen in an early sample of schools we’re looking at for the fall, we saw applications up across a nice cross-section of schools and deposits down, both for adult degree programs in the undergrad space and also for graduate programs. So we saw more interest and more people completing applications, which is a non-trivial commitment of time, and then we see them stalling out and not wanting to enroll. Now, I think that means that it’s always been important to stay in touch for a long time and to keep following up with people, but you may have a pod of people who didn’t come this fall that it’s more important than ever to stay in touch with and stay close to as we’re going forward. I think there’s a chance that when uncertainty does fall away a bit, that some of those people will provide us with a momentary uptick that will help offset whatever it is that’s happening to us this fall. So I think that’s important. Keeping in touch with them, more important than ever.

0:27:52.5 Amy: Great, and so I think that that pairs nicely with what I was going to ask you next, Will, which is, if you wouldn’t mind kind of taking us home. I think we’ve talked about a lot of the key findings in the survey and a little more in depth on some strategies that our listeners might consider employing in their institutions. Would you mind just recapping for us what those key findings are?

0:28:14.4 WL: Yeah, sure. And I’ll stress for folks that if they’ve got questions or if they’ve got concerns they wanna talk about, that Amy and I talk to lots of schools each week, and even if we don’t have solid survey data on every single point you might have a good question about, we’ve got a lot of anecdotal evidence based on what people are telling us and how they’re answering our follow-up questions when they tell us things. As far as the survey goes, the main points we wanted to really reiterate are, first of all, that the pandemic has amplified the obstacles that students are facing, obstacles to enrollment. And so you need to design your recruitment strategies and support services to meet those needs. It’s always been important, but I think it’s more important than ever in these uncertain times. Secondly, that your future adult learner is more price-sensitive right now than they’ve probably ever been, and that you need to assess your price carefully, but you also need to communicate clearly about your price and about what they’re getting in return for that price, the return on education.

0:29:16.3 WL: Third, that interest in online is probably going to have accelerated dramatically when we have hard data about enrollments and exclusively online programs. We know that for-profits and the mega universities have had good enrollment patterns for the past year, and I think we’re gonna see online in general, having a bump that we might not ever retreat from after this is over. And then fourth that it’s harder than ever to find and get that adult learner you found to commit to the graduate program, or the adult degree completion program that they’re interested in. So you’ve gotta make sure you’ve got a good audience generation strategy that you find creative ways to find new pods of students that you can tap into, you’ve gotta nurture them more than ever, and you’ve got to look at different channels and different outlets for continuing the conversation and continuing to find new people to refill that pipeline. These are challenging times in many ways, and I think they’ll be particularly challenging when it comes to getting people to sign on the dotted line. So those are our key takeaways. Hopefully, you found those helpful. I’ll just throw out my thanks for your time and don’t hesitate to contact us if you do have further questions. Amy.

0:30:35.7 Amy: Yeah, thanks, Will. I’m so glad we could spend this time together. I think those listening probably realized there are a lot of actionable insights in the paper, and I would just encourage anybody who’s interested, like Will said, to feel free to reach out to us, to download the paper which is online on, and it’s titled Understanding Your Future Adult Learner, so you can find it there. And again, just feel free to be in touch if there’s anything we can do to help have this conversation with you and your campus. So we appreciate your time, and we really look forward to having you again on Office Hours.


0:31:14.4 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we sit down with the Chief Information Officer at Susquehanna University. She’ll talk about the digital disconnect between campus IT teams and university leadership at a lot of universities, and explain why your entire IT strategy has to be student-centric above all else. Until then, thank you for your time.

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