Enrollment Blog

Growing your slice of the graduate enrollment pie

by Jennie Bailey

In my job at Royall, I’ve got one foot in the graduate enrollment boat and the other in undergraduate. Straddling both worlds gives me a unique perspective on the enrollment practices in each.

I’ve heard from an increasing number of people at both graduate and undergraduate institutions who are trying to grow nontraditional and graduate enrollment. As national yield rates decrease and the number of college-bound students declines, many schools are looking to nontraditional revenue streams as a way to achieve net tuition revenue goals.

The schools that are on track to grow graduate enrollment are using strategic marketing in their recruitment efforts. One thing that continually strikes me is that this trend—commonplace in undergraduate enrollment—has yet to gain much traction on the graduate side.

To that end, I have a piece of advice for graduate enrollment leaders: if you want to increase your graduate enrollment, you need to think not just about the size of the whole pie but also about the size of your slice of it.

Think about the size of the pie and the size of your slice

Allow me to explain. There are a number of levers you can use to increase your enrollment. One way is to increase the number of applications you have to choose from. In pie terms, if I want a bigger piece (that is, more enrollees), one choice I have is to make a bigger pie (attract a larger pool of applicants).

This strategy—which focuses on finding qualified candidates, attracting them, and designing the application process for them—is the one most grad schools rely on. It’s certainly valuable. But with a decline in the number of graduate test-takers and flat enrollment over the past 10 years, making a bigger pie is becoming increasingly difficult.

If you can’t make a bigger pie, how can you still get more for yourself? One option is to cut yourself a bigger slice—by increasing the number of qualified applicants who enroll. Yield management is a tried-and-true strategy in the undergraduate world, but many graduate schools don’t spend much time on it. Fortunately, as I’ve seen with our graduate partners, a little effort toward increasing yield can go a long way.

How to cut yourself a bigger piece of the pie

One way that a little effort can yield you a bigger slice is to optimize financial aid. Studies have long found that even small amounts of financial aid can greatly influence a student’s choice of where to enroll. One study found that an offer of as little as $1,000 had the ability to increase total enrollment by three to five percentage points.

This study refers to undergraduates, and graduate financial aid is more varied and complex. But thinking about how you can adapt the idea to the graduate environment is worth your consideration. Are you using either financial aid or discounting to shape your enrollments? By synchronizing enrollment marketing with financial aid offers, you substantially increase the chance of enrolling the students you are targeting.

Another way to increase your serving of the enrollment pie is to follow up with your admitted students, but all admitted students are not created equal. Some are more likely to show up on your doorstep than others. Figuring out which ones are packing their bags is actually quite simple: ask them.

After you’ve sent out both admittances and financial aid decisions, send your admitted students a one-question survey. If you collect deposits for your graduate programs, the question should be “Will you submit a deposit?” If you don’t collect deposits, ask “Will you enroll?”

Our research has found that students’ answers are very good predictors of their actual intent to enroll. Eighty-six percent of graduate students who answer “already done” will likely be there on the first day of classes. A simple follow-up with them is all that you need. At the other end of the spectrum, only 2% of students who answer “no” will show up, so few resources are needed here.

Focus most of your resources on following up with the students who are still on the fence: the ones who answer “haven’t decided” or “need more information.” A call from you or some additional materials about the program may be all it takes to help them make up their minds in your favor.

Find out your competitors’ secret recipe

I said that you shouldn’t follow up with your “no’s,” but that’s not entirely true. You shouldn’t follow up with them to try to change their minds, but you should use an exit survey to find out what they were thinking when they made their decisions.

Send exit surveys immediately to maximize the response rate. Ask students where else they applied, why they chose the school that they did, and how interested they were in your program in the first place. Their replies are invaluable for shaping future outreach.

Used together, these methods can mean a bigger slice of the enrollment pie for you next year and for years to come. the infographic and kick-start preparations for your incoming class.

Hungry for more?

Download our "Five Proven Strategies to Engage Prospective Graduate Students" to help you maximize your graduate marketing efforts. Download now.


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