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Today’s Graduate Students: New Research on What They Want

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)May 26, 2021

Do you know what kind of programs graduate students are really looking for? Master’s degrees? Certificates? Online programs? Accelerated courses? All of the above? These are just a few of the dozens of questions that RNL’s forthcoming Graduate Student Recruitment Report will answer (a report we will release at the 2021 RNL National Conference). Last month we previewed how institution’s marketing channels are measuring up against how students start their search, and this month we’re taking a look at how they prefer their programs to be shaped.

Why is this important? Because you can have the best marketing and outreach in the world, but if your programs are not configured in a way that students need them (not want them), they will enroll elsewhere. Think of this as the first “p” in the “four Ps of marketing” (program=product).

When I started my career, many of my clients were the “only game in town” in offering programs attractive to working adults (about 75 percent of all graduate students). Today, however, dozens of schools in every region are vying for these students. Institutional challenges have been compounded by the fact that if graduate students can’t find what they need in their “backyard,” they can look anywhere in the country and find on online program—and they’re even more comfortable doing do after their pandemic experiences.

So what do they want? We surveyed 1,500 prospective graduate students (planning to enroll within the next year), and here’s what they told us.

Not only master’s degrees

While half of graduate students plan to enroll in a master’s program and another 10 percent plan to enroll in a doctoral program, the other 40 percent indicate that they are planning on enrolling in a certificates, certifications, and other non-degree credentials. (Online student data are outer circle, hybrid student data middle circle, and F2F students are inner circle.)

Type of Credential for Graduate Students - 2021 research

Demand data on specific master’s (and doctoral) programs are quite easily accessible—and if you can’t find that data, RNL can help. Similar data on non-degree subjects are harder to come by and require a bit more willingness to assume some risk in order to get the big reward. Data on the occupations and skills that employers are most frequently looking for is a good place to start, but that is the topic for a future blog.

Online programs/hybrid programs lead

Could one-third of graduate students really want to enroll in a fully online program? Yes they do, and our data are backed up by recent NCES fall enrollment data that indicate that the same proportion of graduate students are enrolled in “all distance courses” (IPEDS lexicon for online learning). And what about almost half planning to enroll in some sort of hybrid program that blends online and classroom learning? A 2018 study I co-authored with Carol Aslanian (Post-Traditional Graduate Students, Aslanian Market Research, 2018) indicated that 43 percent of these graduate students prefer hybrid courses and programs. So, could this have grown to 48 percent in the intervening 2.5 years? Absolutely.

Instructional Format - 2021 research

Perhaps the most important finding in these data is that fact that only one in five graduate students plans to enroll in a face-to-face program. Is this finding driven by the fact that the survey was administered during the pandemic (January/February 2021)? Well, yes, but not by as much as you might think. Again harkening back to that 2018 study, we found that only 29 percent of graduate students preferred fully classroom program. So the pandemic has indeed had some effect, but each individual’s ever increasing comfortability with all things online is far more important.

Accelerated courses are a “must”

At what pace do graduate students want their program delivered? Over the course of working with 300+ colleges and universities to ensure their programs are attractive to working adults, I have had a lot of discussions about acceleration. The most frequent question is: do these students want the entire program to take less time, do they want each course to take less time, or is it both. The answer is (of course) both, but I surveyed on this question dozens of times and the findings were always similar—shorter courses are more important than shorter programs. This is because students realize that the most frequent way institutions compress total time is to reduce flexibility—the most important thing to most adult learners at both levels of higher education.

We asked our 1,500 prospective graduate students how long they’d like their graduate courses to be. While 61 percent of classroom students will enroll in such courses, remember that this is 61 percent of 20 percent of all graduate students. These are likely the youngest and most traditional graduate students and they will probably continue to have these preferences, but they are also likely to become an increasingly small proportion of the entire graduate education universe. (Online student data are outer circle, hybrid student data middle circle, and F2F students are inner circle.)

Graduate Student Research: Level of Acceleration

Online and hybrid students are looking for course acceleration in such high proportions that if you are only offering your online programs in semester-length courses, you should probably assume that you are (at best) attracting one-third of whatever subject-level degree market you are pursuing.

I’ve been asked whether a student who prefers 10-12 week courses would pass over a program that offers 7-8 week courses (by offering two terms within each semester). The focus groups I have conducted over the years make me confident in saying that these students are “voting” for acceleration, and if your program meets their needs and interests in other ways, they will consider your program.

Watch my conversation with Brian Gawor for more details on this research

Next month: What are the most important factors in graduate students enrollment decisions? Stay tuned for more.

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About the Author

Scott Jeffe, RNL

Scott Jeffe has worked with more than 200 institutions in 40+ states to apply market data to strategic decisions. With a focus on profiling the demands and preferences of nontraditional (adult, online, etc.) students, Scott...

Read more about Scott's experience and expertise

Reach Scott by e-mail at Scott.Jeffe@RuffaloNL.com.

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