Graduate and Online Recruitment Simplified: Remarkably Straightforward Advice

Scott JeffeVice President, Research (Graduate and Online)September 29, 2022

I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Godfrey Gibbison, Dean of Extended Learning and Global Programs, California State University San Marcos. Godfrey and I struck up a conversation about how he has brought together academic and enrollment stakeholders to work on marketing, recruitment and enrollment of adult, graduate, professional, and online students.

He has a real knack for being able to make a straightforward case for innovation, customer service, quality instruction and more. You can watch a four-minute video interview below and also read highlights of our conversation (edited for clarity).

Scott Jeffe: You have said that you are leading a crusade against the word “unique” in program marketing and promotion. Why?

Godfrey Gibbison: Often, when I begin a discussion with a faculty member or dean about a new program and ask what their plans are, they say “Well, there are already 10 providers in the marketplace, so how are we going to make it unique?” What they mean is, what unique content can we offer that will make it stand out? The trouble with that—and hence by “crusade against the word unique”—is that students aren’t asking us for something unique, especially at the undergraduate level.

SJ: Can you be more specific about the types of programs?

GG: Think of bachelor’s programs in business, sociology, communication, or psychology. What students need is a degree so they can take advantage of opportunities that are emerging either in their current workplace or other opportunities that are emerging in their local labor market. They have work experience. They don’t need a super unique or super customized program. We miss those opportunities because we’re focusing on the unique content we will bring to the marketplace.

What the students actually need is a delivery format that facilitates their work and family circumstances. They have really complicated lives, and they need delivery formats with which they’re able to manage both their school work and everything else, rather than being hyper-focused on some really super unique contents in their major. That’s just not what these students are asking us for.

SJ: So undergraduate students want generic programs, but RNL research indicates that graduate students want programs that conform to their areas of interest. Does this mean that institutions should develop very “unique” programs at the graduate level?

That’s a great question. You can give the students options without telling them that they’re enrolling in your MBA in super-duper special X. Graduate students (and undergrads for that matter) want some choices, and you can build those choices into your program through electives, concentrations, optional internships and culminating experiences, and these should be clear and concise on your website. It doesn’t have to mean that you are doing an MBA in custom furniture manufacturing.

This can be challenging for smaller programs. If 80 percent want option A and only 20 percent want option B, you can end up with small courses. One thing that I’ve found that works for really specialized areas is using industry experts rather than full-time faculty. Industry experts love to be associated with higher education. It’s the most extraordinary thing to me that some big mogul working for a large corporation will teach a course in an MBA program for $3,000 not because they want or need $3,000 but because they get a lot of utility, a lot of satisfaction from carrying a card that says, “I’m a professor at name your university.” So leverage that.

SJ: You’ve also said that you don’t think that the pandemic actually changed that much. This may seem crazy to some, but what are you getting at?

GG: What I mean by that is that the trends that the pandemic brought into clear focus were already there. The shift of students to online learning and to hybrid learning started a decade ago, and particularly among graduate students, that shift was well underway. The shift was happening in the tens of thousands every year—which is huge. But in a higher ed system as large as the United States, tens of thousands wasn’t getting noticed.

What the pandemic did was move it from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands or even millions. All of a sudden, we were seeing the trend because the size of the shift was so much larger. But people serving adult, professional, and other student groups had been saying it for years. The pandemic basically accelerated the pace and urgency and brought this to more people’s attention.

SJ: So, while you think that “generic” programs are sell, you think that recruitment has to be personal. How complicated is it to make recruitment personal?

GG: Well, it is complicated, but it is what students today expect and we have to do it. We often want to create one message and hope that it will reach a whole lot of students. Many institutions think that online students won’t expect personalized attention. After all, they don’t want to be taught in person, they don’t want to interact in real time, etc. But this is not true. These are humans, and they want to know and feel that there’s another human on the other side.

I’ve been in the recruitment business for 16 or 17 years now, and my greatest successes as a program director and as a recruiter are those times when a relationship has been built between me and the student. It continued from first contact right through the program and sometimes well after the program.

Some universities have established a success coaching model where there’s a staff member who is responsible for the success of a certain number of students, and their job is to keep the student on track. That personalized relationship with the student, even at scale, has to be maintained. It is difficult and it is expensive, but it is a personal relationship with the student.

SJ: At the early recruitment stages, institutions that are scaling up will also automate some portion of their communications. How do institutions that don’t have a team large enough to really personalize everything optimize their personalization?

GG: I think program directors are very important, as are faculty, to be used strategically. Especially on the graduate side, students want to hear from their faculty members at certain points in the process. So I have professional recruiters who answer all the generic “process” questions, but for questions about the program that really helps the student make that final decision, we funnel these questions to the program director or faculty members.

Here’s another great use for the program director: I say, “Look, you have 10 applications that are 70 percent complete. Now it’s your turn to reach out to the student. Let the student feel as if you they’re coming into a program in which they’re going to be taken care of.” Program directors who do a good job in this contact consistently filled their class.

SJ: One more question. You’ve spoken eloquently about the importance of the web experience for perspective students. How do institutions improve the web experience, and why does it matter?

GG: The first thing is, listen to your marketing people. Your marketing people often know that the website is not for internal use. It’s not for the dean or the faculty member or the program director. Your website is a primary element of your marketing. Your web content should be forward facing, public facing. We spend lots of money trying to attract people to our website, we spend a lot of money doing Google AdWords, doing keywords, this optimization. We spend a lot of money building the website. If we get people there, but they can’t find what they are looking for, we’ve wasted our resources.

I often say to my academic colleagues, “Let’s go take a look at some famous companies, companies that don’t need anybody to know who they are, and look at the experience that they’re giving their customers.” These are companies that we all know the names of, but still, they have put a lot of energy and thought into making sure that the web experience is excellent.

And then I say, “Consider your own search behaviors.” This is a way to help the marketing people as they’re having these conversations with faculty. I always say, “Consider your own behaviors. When you go to a website that does not have the information that you want, the content you’re looking for, or the organization that helps you navigate the website, what do you do?” And you often get, “Well, yes, I leave the website.” Well, what do you expect from the student? This is exactly what the students are going to do. They are humans like you. Their behaviors are not unique. Your behavior is not unique. It all returns to the word “unique.” None of this is unique.

Looking for more guidance on graduate and online recruitment?

Check out our Own and Transform Your Enrollment series, featuring free best practices guides on topics such as institutional readiness, new program investment, instructional design, and more. More will be added in the coming months. Download yours now.

I also invite you to check our Events page for upcoming webinars, workshops and more.

Finally, if you would like to talk about your graduate and online enrollment strategies, contact our team to set up a discussion.

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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