Enrollment Blog

4 tips for getting inside the mind of a prospective grad student

by Pam Kiecker Royall, Ph.D.

Graduate enrollment teams have many things in common with this unexpected group: aspiring politicians. Both are charged with building robust and persuasive outreach campaigns for a large, diverse audience that spans generations, social classes, ethnicities, needs, and ambitions. As polling analyses and enrollment metrics attest, the success of a campaign often hinges on knowledge of the nuances of a target audience.

Royall & Company set out to gain that knowledge to enable our partners to effectively connect their vast target audience—one that encompasses newly minted college grads and mid-career professionals alike—to their best-fit programs.

Our research team surveyed more than one thousand current, former, and prospective graduate and professional school students from across the country. The goal: to identify their motivations and methods for pursuing an advanced degree—insights needed to make the most of each contact with them—and to suggest specific actions you can take to empower your campaign and strengthen your position in the competitive recruitment landscape. Here are the four things we learned:

1. Keep your institution in front of your own students

Most graduate applicants have thought about pursuing an advanced degree for a while. Nearly 72% first considered pursuing a graduate or professional degree while in college or earlier; 32% started thinking about it in high school. Among currently enrolled graduate students, 42% first considered the program where they are enrolled while in college. Only 22%, however, enrolled in a program at their undergraduate alma mater.

We suggest that you make sure lack of knowledge is not the reason your undergraduate students depart your campus for their advanced degrees. Develop a plan for early and sustained communication with your current undergraduate population so that your school is top of mind when your students consider their advanced degree options. Early communication is essential: 74% of participants who had taken a graduate admission test already knew where they wanted to enroll before sharpening their #2 pencils.

2. Be responsive to inquiries

Prospective graduate students are busy, and they expect and value schools’ prompt responses to their inquiries. Survey participants rated “responsiveness to inquiries” second only to college websites as the most important means of gathering information about a graduate or professional degree.

We encourage you to dedicate enrollment resources and create an infrastructure that can ensure timely responses to every prospective student inquiry. Consider using multiple media channels (e.g., phone, email, text) to communicate both your responses and your interest in prospective students’ needs.

3. Make financial information clear and accessible

Grad students want to go to an accredited program without breaking their banks. Seventy-four percent of survey participants indicated they will use financial assistance (financial aid and/or scholarships) for their graduate education. Among these participants, 81% said they will not be able to continue their education without some financial support.

We recommend that you provide transparent, comprehensive, and easily accessible financial information on your website—graduate students’ most preferred channel for this type of information. Make sure that your enrollment officials are fully versed in the range of funding support available to prospective students. You can strengthen your position as a credible option by proactively offering this critical information in a user-friendly way.

4. Show students how they can make it all work

With age comes responsibility. Older students—particularly those over the age of 36—will likely have to balance their course work with the demands of full-time careers, family, or the bottom line of their household budgets. So, it's not surprising that these older students appreciate manageable paths to graduation. Older students are more likely to prioritize program length, schedule flexibility, and online course work than their younger counterparts.

These older students will surely appreciate knowing about your school’s accommodations for the demands of their daily lives. We suggest that you highlight flexible learning options such as online, fast-track, and executive programs.

While some grad students move seamlessly from their undergraduate studies into a postbaccalaureate program and others consider advanced degree options when they are at a crossroads in their personal lives or careers, the majority of prospective graduate students share a common ambition to improve their standing in life. Almost 60% of our participants chose to pursue graduate education as a means to secure specialized jobs, better career opportunities, and/or higher salaries.

Clearly, advanced study is important—if not essential— to them.

From this fact stems our most important bit of advice: honor your prospective graduate students by attending to the lives they are leading. Make sure your programs are accessible and manageable. Take care to consider the life experiences, motivations, and limits of your sought-after students as you create your enrollment campaigns—this election season and always.

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