The formal inquiry process is dead.
Gone are the days of graduate schools “wooing” students over time through mailed information packets and phone calls. Often, the first time a college or university has contact with potential graduate students is after students have completed their applications.
In fact, many schools I work with joke that they no longer have a funnel, but rather a vase or river. The days of being able to link number of inquiries to number of applications and in turn enrollments are over.
With the loss of the formal process, what can higher education marketers do to convert prospects to students?
To successfully attract prospective graduate students, the first step is to understand who they are.
Our market research has shown a shift over the years in the demographic make-up of graduate students. Today’s graduate student is predominantly female, in her late 30s to early 40s, is interested in earning her degree while she juggles work and family and plans to pay for her tuition herself or with loans.
Additionally, according to data from websites like GradSchools.com, she is often looking for an online program. But, unlike in the past, her end goal is as likely to be career change, as it is career advancement. With information on the character and motivations of graduate students today, schools can effectively match marketing efforts to her (or his) lifestyle.
Below are four critical areas where “matching” can provide schools with a strong competitive advantage when marketing to graduate students today.
Match supply to demand
In today’s competitive marketplace schools need to have their finger on the pulse of what students want – which is not necessarily a full degree program.
In fact, nearly 40 percent of adults going back to graduate school already have a master’s degree. Increasingly, students returning to school are looking for further training through certificate or licensing programs. Therefore, it is advantageous for colleges and universities to offer a range of customizable paths that enable graduate students to add to their education in the way that best fits their life circumstances and career goals.
Additionally, not all programs are equal when it comes to demand. As more adults turn to graduate education as an agent of career change, programs in fields such as education, health and business are consistently the most coveted.
Match marketing to the target market
Graduate students are price-and value-sensitive.
Balancing work, family and school is taxing on time. And, these students are often paying for their education themselves. Time and budget constraints have led to a consumer approach to education.
Graduate education is not about lifelong learning; it’s about return on investment. Since many colleges and universities can’t lower tuition rates, your marketing should focus on the value added to students’ lives – particularly their professional lives.
While undergraduate students focus on location and class schedule, graduate students concentrate on improving or changing their careers, and thus tend to hone in on a school’s reputation and the quality of its courses.
Match online information to inquiry demand
Instant is everything to today’s graduate student.
Influenced by high speed internet, on-demand music, TV and movies, as well as instant updates from everyone from their friends to their bank, they are accustomed to getting the information they need the moment they want it.
They look for the same responsiveness when searching for graduate programs. However, the dissolution of the formal inquiry process and the rise of secret shopping have made it unrealistic to expect an opportunity to respond to a request.
As a result, optimizing your enrollment strategy is paramount in engaging potential graduate students. A site that is easy to navigate and has all the pertinent information can be the difference between converting an inquiry into an enrollment or not. And students will want information on more than academics.
Students also evaluate institutions on what enhanced career services, tutoring and guidance resources are available, so schools must be sure to communicate what support resources they offer as well.
Match delivery to preferences
Students at all levels demand courses they can take anytime, anywhere and in a condensed format – including graduate students.
The success of private-sector schools has sprouted from their ability to recognize the demands of place-bound and time-bound students and address them quickly.
Recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) shows that while 74 percent of graduate students receive face-to-face instruction at public institutions, only 26 percent of graduate students receive any from of online education from the same public institutions. Conversely, their private for-profit counterparts enroll 85 percent of their graduate students into some form of online learning.
As traditional colleges and universities face more and more competition from private-sector schools, the need to meet demand for self-paced, multi-delivery formats (face-to-face, online, hybrid) will increase dramatically.
In addition to changing how prospective graduate students move through the recruitment and application process, they also have shifting characteristics, needs and expectations ― all of which call for new marketing strategies and tactics.