What Drives Graduate Student Enrollment Decisions?

Julie BryantVice President for Student SuccessMarch 27, 2024

RNL graduate student data helps institutions better target graduate students

Blog: What Drives Grad Student Enrollment Decisions? 

Picture of a graduate student at a computer
Cost and flexible program options are two of the biggest enrollment factors.

Do you know why your graduate students choose to enroll at your institution? 

Understanding why your students select the institutions in which they enroll can help you to refine your messaging to focus on the things most important in graduate student enrollment decisions as well as ensuring alignment in your recruitment process. Knowing why students make the decisions they do can guide you toward refinements to their experiences as enrolled students that can lead to better retention and completion once they enroll. 

RNL collects data on enrollment decision priorities both among prospective graduate students and enrolled graduate students. Our prospective student data is drawn from our national graduate student study in which 1,068 prospective graduate students (not yet enrolled) were surveyed electronically for RNL’s 2023 Graduate Student Recruitment Report in March 2023. Our enrolled graduate student data is derived from 23,198 currently enrolled graduate students 102 institutions who completed the RNL Adult Student Priorities Survey between the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2023. 

This table reflects the percentage of students who said each factor was important or very important to them:

 Importance Factors in Enrollment DecisionsImportance (Important and Very Important)
FactorNot yet enrolledEnrolled
Future employment opportunities70%78%
Flexible course options (online, evening, weekend, etc.)72%69%
Financial aid / scholarship opportunities69%76%
Academic reputation66%79%
Campus location (close to work/home)54%67%
Personalized attention prior to enrollment39%65%
Recommendations from family/friends/employer33%57%
Size of institution22%48%

Reviewing this table, we see little differentiation between what prospective students think is important at the point of enrollment and those things that students who have actually enrolled indicate were most important. The rank order of perceptions are pretty similar between students who are still considering their enrollment options and those who have already enrolled in a program, even though the currently enrolled students place a greater degree of importance on nearly every enrollment factor.

Five observations

1. The cost of the program is a driving factor for students. They need to know what their financial commitment is going to be to achieve their graduate degree. You will want to be up front with students about their potential investment, as well as work to maintain costs during their enrollment and to provide a good value for their money. 

2. Future employment opportunities speak to what students are going to be able accomplish career-wise with their graduate degree. Students at this level are more likely to have a vision for how their degree is going to impact their professional opportunities, but there may still be opportunities to connect the dots for them on what they are learning and how that will best apply to their career. Enumerating how a degree may be especially beneficial for a particular career during the recruitment stage may help to build the case for the investment of time and money. It is also good to remind students of the future benefits throughout their program to keep them motivated to continue. 

3. The availability of flexible course options is a higher consideration at the pre-enrollment stage than it is in hindsight for enrolled graduate students. However, students are unlikely to stay enrolled if your program doesn’t fit their life and work schedules. Establishing and maintaining flexible options with asynchronous online offerings, classes that take place over a few weeks rather than an entire semester, flexible pacing and other approaches that are going to allow the courses to fit into already established busy lives are going to help your institution to best attract and retain students.

4. While the accessibility of financial aid and scholarships are not as important of a factor as it may be for undergraduate students at four-year private and public institutions, where it is rated as important to 84 percent and 83 percent of currently enrolled undergraduate students respectively, it still has an influence in the perception of the education being affordable for graduate students. Be intentional with the awarding of your financial aid to attract students and remember to maintain financial assistance levels for returning students.

5. The perceived factor of academic reputation is of higher importance to currently enrolled students than it is to prospective students. This is an area where institutions have an opportunity to further position the quality of the academic experience they provide to students along with the quality of their faculty. This messaging is critical to reinforce to currently enrolled students as well and to not take for granted that they are fully aware of what you are providing to them. 

Assess your graduate students and your recruitment strategies

Are you gathering these types of data from your prospective and currently enrolled graduate students at your institution? Check with your institutional research office to find out. And if not, learn more about how you can assess your graduate students, or contact us to discuss your best strategies for recruiting graduate student populations

About the Author

Julie Bryant

Julie L. Bryant, vice president for student success at RNL, works directly with colleges and universities throughout North America in the area of satisfaction assessment. Julie is responsible for client service to more than 2,700 institutions...

Read more about Julie's experience and expertise

Reach Julie by e-mail at Julie.Bryant@RuffaloNL.com.

Read More Blogs By: Julie Bryant