What’s working in graduate student recruitment and marketing?

Sheila Mahan

August 6, 2012

Graduate enrollment has long been an important component of many institutions’ overall enrollment picture. However, in recent years, we have seen institutions giving even greater attention to their graduate recruitment and enrollment practices, especially in the many areas of the country where the high school graduate pool is shrinking and undergraduate enrollment is challenged.

This increased interest in graduate enrollment is raising new questions about the most effective practices for attracting and recruiting graduate students. To help address this need for information, Noel-Levitz and the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals (NAGAP) partnered this spring to survey the nation’s graduate recruitment and admissions professionals to find out what they think are the most effective recruitment practices to recruit master’s degree students.

The survey asked graduate recruitment professionals to assess the effectiveness of nearly 80 practices across all stages of the graduate recruitment funnel. And because many graduate admissions professionals often ask Noel-Levitz consultants to help them benchmark their funnel rates—especially admit rates and yield rates—the survey also asked for funnel rates, and for practices regarding name purchase practices, as optional questions. (Doctoral student recruitment is often different from master’s recruiting so the survey focused on recruiting master’s students as a starting point for building the knowledge base.)

The report, 2012 Marketing and Student Recruitment Practices for Master’s-Level Graduate Programs, provides an analysis of responses for each of four different Carnegie institution types: private doctorate-granting; public doctorate-granting; private master’s/baccalaureate/specialized institutions; and public master’s/baccalaureate/specialized institutions. (Keep in mind that the survey focused on master’s recruitment at each of these types of institutions.)

Key findings
Many of the findings were not unexpected, but others were a surprise, signaling a profession that is very much evolving. Also surprising was the number of institutions not using practices rated as highly effective by their peers.

A few major themes emerged, common to all four types of institutions:

1) Not surprisingly, financial strategies—including offers of assistantships—appeared among the “top 10” most effective recruitment practices across all institution types.  For both public and private doctorate-granting institutions, assistantships (either with or without a work obligation) and offering financial aid at the time of admission were rated as the top two practices. For master’s/baccalaureate/specialized institutions, financial strategies appeared on the list of the top 10 but were further down on the list than other marketing and relationship-building strategies.

2) Beyond funding, the Web was clearly identified as an important and emerging tool for graduate recruitment and marketing. Across all institution types, the practice of maintaining graduate program Web pages to attract the interest of inquiries was included in the top 10 practices. (The Noel-Levitz study done in 2007, “E-Expectations” of Graduate Students (PDF), provides useful information about what prospective students wanted to find on the Web back then, a demand that has certainly grown since.)

3) Perhaps a little surprising was the strong endorsement of campus visits for graduate recruitment. The vast majority of respondents from all types of institutions rated campus visits for admitted students among the top four practices. In addition, “open houses and visit days to generate inquiries” appeared on the list for public and private doctorate-granting institutions and for public master’s/bachelors/specialized institutions. While the campus visit has long been a recognized tool for undergraduate recruitment, these findings suggest that graduate recruiters should incorporate visit opportunities into their recruitment as well.

4) At the application stage, the practice of following up by e-mail with students whose applications are incomplete was highly rated by all institution types. In fact, it is a nearly universal practice, being used by 98 -100 percent of master’s/baccalaureate/specialized colleges, by 88 percent of public doctorate-granting institutions, and by 98 percent of private doctorate-granting institutions.

5) To recruit international master’s students, maintaining Web pages to attract student interest and building relationships with influencers in embassies, governments, and international agencies emerged as key practices for all institution types.

6)  To recruit adult students, partnerships with businesses were rated as the most effective practice across institution types.

Additional observations
Also notable in the study was that a significant portion of the respondents were not using practices that appeared on the top 10 list for their peer group. For example, “phone calls to admitted students from current students and graduate assistants” appeared among the top 10 practices for public and private, doctorate-granting institutions, and for private master’s/baccalaureate/specialized institutions. But about half of respondents from these institution types were not using this method at all.

As we enhance our knowledge of national norms for graduate recruitment, understanding funnel persistence rates can also be useful. The following preliminary differences by institution type were evident based on response to the optional questions:

  • Median admit rate from completed applicants:
    • A 62.4 percent rate was reported by all public institution respondents (regardless of Carnegie institution type) compared to a 70.3 percent rate reported by all private institution respondents.
    • A 56.0 percent rate was reported by all doctorate-granting institutions (public and private combined) compared to a 71.3 percent rate reported by all master’s/baccalaureate/specialized institutions (public and private combined)
  • Median yield rate from admit to enrollment:
    • A 75.4 rate was reported by all public institution respondents (regardless of Carnegie institution type) compared to a 65.9 percent rate reported by all private institution respondents.
    • Doctorate-granting institution respondents (public and private combined) reported a 55.2 percent rate, while master’s/baccalaureate/specialized institutions (public and private combined) reported a 73.9 percent rate.

The report (and its Appendix, containing the ranking of all items for all institution types) is a great starting point for continuing discussion and information-sharing about graduate recruitment. It also provides graduate recruitment professionals with the ability to compare their institution’s efforts with, and learn from, their peers.

If you have questions about the report or its findings, or if you would like to discuss effective practices for graduate recruitment, please contact me at Sheila-mahan@noellevitz.com.

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