Published on 2014/06/27

Innovation and Support Critical for Graduate School Differentiation

AUDIO | Innovation and Support Critical for Graduate School Differentiation
For institutions that focus largely on undergraduate education, graduate schools must focus on creating high-demand, innovative programming that differentiates them from the competition.
The following interview is with Gerardo González, dean of graduate studies and associate vice-president for research at California State University, San Marcos. González spoke at the 2013 Council of Graduate Schools conference on the challenges of marketing graduate-level programs at predominantly undergraduate institutions. In this interview, González expands on that topic and discusses strategies graduate administrators can put in place to differentiate themselves from competitors and succeed in this competitive marketplace.

Click here to read key takeaways.

1. When it comes to marketing, what are the biggest challenges faced by graduate schools in universities that are predominantly focused on undergraduate education?

For campuses like ours, which does have a large undergraduate student population, you really have to be able to convince prospective graduate students that we’re committed to graduate education. We’ve been successful in showing that commitment. Part of the advantage we have at Cal State, San Marcos is our size; right now, we’re at about 11,000 students [and about] five per cent of those students are graduate students. Part of what we really want to do is show to the students that their experience as a graduate student will pay off for them and will be something that will be considered distinctive and help them stand out.

We definitely have to think of ways to convince students to come to Cal State, San Marcos. We look at what kinds of professional opportunities or hands-on experiences they’ll have at our campus as well as the access to faculty, which is very important in convincing students we offer something that other campuses cannot as effectively.

Finally, it’s about financial aid and how you can support students while they’re in graduate schools. That’s an important piece all schools are faced with.

2. Does a heavy focus on undergraduate education hold a stigma for prospective graduate students?

It may, but it depends on the institutional support for undergraduate education. We’ve been able to be effective in communicating the opportunities, experiences and resources available for prospective [graduate] students to come to our campus, for example, you want to make sure you have assistantships to help round out their graduate education experience and that there’s opportunities for internships or externships. And, again, are there financial aid opportunities that can help support them when they’re in graduate school?

Because of our size at this time, access to faculty does pay off for us — there’s a strong relationship between faculty and graduate students. What graduate students also experience here is an opportunity to be a resource for undergraduates; they can actually serve as mentors or leaders to undergraduates; that’s a nice way to make it work effectively.

3. What are some strategies leaders at such institutions can put in place to attract new students?

There’s high competition for good students and the best students go to the school that can offer the best support and programs and financial aid. We at Cal State, San Marcos have been pretty effective with coming up with innovative programs, things that students look for. We definitely want to make sure our master’s programs are distinctive; offering them hands-on experiences in graduate school, internships, things that will provide them with the tools to be competitive either straight out of the master’s program [in] prospective jobs or to be competitive for doctoral programs.

4. In your own experience, what are the outcomes of implementing such strategies?

It really boils down to reputation. For many students, what they’re looking for is what can offer them the best experience, the best financial aid packages, the best access to professionals in their discipline or network. We feel we’ve been able to establish [a] good reputation and marketing strategies and that our students and our alumni are really strong peers for the incoming students. We definitely feel our alumni can best communicate these experiences. It’s really our reputation that supersedes most factors. Of course, we’re [at] the size where access to faculty is still manageable, which contributes to the positive alumni experience. It’s probably our best marketing tool.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the distinct challenges and opportunities that exist for graduate administrators who are operating within predominantly undergraduate student institutions?

We have to recognize: what are the trends in the market of the various professions or disciplines that we’re training our students for going forward? It’s very competitive for various professions. We need to clearly be on the curve in terms of understanding what we need to offer our students, how we need to continue to evolve our programs and make them distinctive and innovative and, as long as we’re keeping on track with how we can continue to be competitive, offering innovative programs is really what we want to be able to do. Given our size — we’re 11,000 students but we’re expected to grow to about 25,000 — the type of master’s programs we will continue to offer need to be distinctive and competitive and need to be able to attract the best students we can.

This interview has been edited for length.

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Key Takeaways

  • The biggest factors in bringing graduate students into institutions that focus on undergraduate studies are distinctiveness, support and financial backing.

  • For smaller institutions, it’s critical to remain on the leading edge of student demand and to be constantly creating new student opportunities that meet their distinct needs.

  • Differentiating from the competition in many cases comes down to programmatic innovation.
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Readers Comments

Jessica Adler 2014/06/28 at 8:33 am

Coming from a smaller school myself, I always wonder how viable a strategy it is to simply create the “most responsive” programs.

I mean, it’s all well and good to dedicate resources to mapping the labor market and defining areas of high growth and going through the work of developing programs that fit into niches… but wouldn’t a better strategy be to define an area of competitive advance and only focus on that?

Generally hitting the “high growth industries” winds up creating a “jack of all trades” vibe: we’ll serve anyone looking for a program. But being the best of a particular industry means that, forever, people IN that industry will look to your institution for their ongoing education.

You just need to make sure you’re not focusing on an industry in decline like journalism or travel agency 🙂

Graeme McD 2014/06/30 at 10:14 am

It’s impossible to understate the importance of being able to offer financial support as a way of bringing students in the door.

An earlier piece in this feature talked about how that was a major hurdle for HBCUs as well.

The thing is, we will never be able to address that issue directly, so I don’t think it’s worth worrying about.

We know we can’t offer students the most money. What can we offer them? That’s what we need to define. That’s a REAL differentiator. If all a student is looking for is more money, they will be severely limiting their education.

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