Published on 2014/06/26

Business-Style Management a Key Differentiator in the Graduate Space

Business-Style Management a Key Differentiator in the Graduate Space
The status quo is no longer viable for graduate institution success; administrators must be more business-like to survive in the modern graduation education marketplace.

The following email Q&A is with Craig Engel, senior vice-president of Noel-Levitz, a higher education consulting firm. The higher education marketplace is undergoing significant change, and the graduate studies space is beginning to be affected by the waves that are rocking the undergraduate marketplace. More and more, graduate school administrators are being faced with a need to evolve in order to survive and thrive. In this interview, Engel shares his thoughts on some of the strategies graduate schools will need to put in place to succeed in the modern graduate education marketplace, and discusses the biggest roadblocks they face in doing so.

1. What are some of the most common problems graduate programs run into when it comes to increasing their enrollment numbers?

In the 20 years I have worked with academic graduate programs, I have seen five dominant issues that impede enrollment growth.

1. A decentralized organizational structure;

2. No real accountability in terms of enrollment and a lack of goal setting for enrollment;

3. Faculty program directors who are charged with recruitment but don’t have adequate training in recruiting graduate students;

4. Inconsistent and ineffective strategies for building a prospective graduate student inquiry pool; and

5. The lack of a marketing and recruitment plan.

The issues at professional programs (such as law, medicine and business) may differ, but many of those programs often have these five issues as well.

Two additional issues stem from these five, especially among PhD-granting programs. One is reduced revenue due to focusing on doctoral students — who tend to enroll in smaller numbers and produce no revenue for the institution — instead of attracting students to larger, revenue-producing master’s and graduate certificate programs. The other issue is the lack of a formula to determine capacity (especially when faculty teach undergraduate and graduate students and advise doctoral students), which makes goal setting for growth difficult.

2. From a 35,000-foot level, what can institutions do to overcome these common obstacles?

Accountability for enrollment is the most critical part and one that many, many graduate programs lack. The graduate dean needs to be responsible for recruiting graduate students as well as retaining them — student retention is as important at the graduate level as it is at the undergraduate. In turn, that dean should hire a director of graduate enrollment who has expertise in marketing, recruitment, processing and student success best practices.

However, the traditionally decentralized culture of graduate enrollment makes this easier said than done. The key question is: how can a campus centralize graduate enrollment and still provide its academic programs the autonomy they need in order to make admissions and scholarship/assistantship decisions?

I usually recommend three steps:

1. Use the enrollment database/customer relationship management to centralize incoming data from prospective students;

2. Deliberately manage communications to prospective students; and

3. Once the application is complete, prepare the files for transfer to the appropriate program for their timely review.

3. How would a more business-minded approach to the graduate education marketplace differentiate program providers from their competitors?

As long as the approach acknowledges the culture of higher education, I see no reason why an institution cannot succeed with a more business-oriented approach to graduate enrollment. Graduate enrollments are growing, and post-undergraduate degrees are becoming key differentiators for college graduates entering the workplace. In light of that, it’s natural that graduate programs need to become more efficient, data informed and competitive the way undergraduate programs have.

This approach should include enrollment accountability, annual and long-term goal setting and the development of key strategies to achieve those goals (e.g. market research, marketing and inquiry building, communication management, deadlines for decision making and the awarding of merit aid, and enrollment management training for the faculty program directors).

The challenge is developing a macro plan that could theoretically include 50 master’s, 20 doctoral and 15 certificate programs. In these situations, there needs to be a series of micro plans that are program specific.

4. What are the consequences of not adapting to today’s more competitive graduate education environment?

In the United States, undergraduate higher education is three years into a five-year period of decline, which will impact graduate enrollment during the next five to 10 years. Prospective graduate students today have many options competing for their attention and enrollment.

Institutions that are organized, strategic in their enrollment planning and understand that the recruitment of graduate students is all about building relationships with prospective students over time will separate themselves from their competitors. Even institutions that have strong graduate offerings need to work at recruiting prospective graduate students, because they can’t assume students are aware of the strength of their graduate programs or that those students are not being wooed by competing institutions. Doing “what we’ve always done” will almost certainly lead to a dead end.

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Key Takeaways

  • The status quo is no longer a viable approach to the graduate education marketplace; the space has shifted too much for institutions to remain unchanged.
  • Graduate education administrators must use business-style strategies, such as long-term growth planning, to increase their enrollments.
  • Larger schools with a number of offers need to create a number of micro-level plans to keep every department on track, but smaller institutions must create a macro-plan that outlines the goals for university-wide graduate education.

Readers Comments

Judy B 2014/06/26 at 8:47 am

Right on! What frustrates me to no end as a retired administrator and part-time higher ed consultant is when someone is put in charge of recruitment but has no actual recruitment experience. If your director doesn’t understand marketing or the on-the-ground experience of reaching out to a prospect, you’re going to end up with unrealistic goals and more red tape around the enrollment process than necessary.

Kelly Tibbit 2014/06/26 at 3:49 pm

Lack of goal setting, and lack of communication about goals, is probably the factor that most impedes enrollment growth. Recruitment isn’t a single-office affair; it’s the responsibility of all members of the institution (faculty, administrators and recruitment staff). When all members are aware of targets and goals, and how their individual role contributes to these numbers, the institution will have a much more polished recruitment strategy and better results.

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