How to Effectively Recruit Graduate Students

Universities spend significant time and resources in recruiting undergraduate students. Unfortunately, graduate recruiting efforts frequently fall victim to ineffective and inefficient practices. As a faculty member and program director of various higher education graduate programs, I have spent much of my career recruiting masters and doctoral students. I have often been frustrated by the lack of attention, planning, and the lack of expertise in how institutions recruit graduate students. In today’s post, I will share the common causes of graduate recruiting problems and discuss how to effectively recruit graduate students.

Photo credit: Martyn Wright

While undergraduate recruiting often differs substantially by the type of institution, graduate recruiting suffers from many of the same problems across all institutions. Obviously some institutions have more money to throw at the problem or can rely on rankings differently, but few institutions do a strong job with graduate recruiting.

Specifically, I see three common problems with graduate student recruitment:

1) Decentralization of recruiting efforts

With the inherent diversity in graduate programs, graduate schools and dean’s offices are reluctant to substantially centralize marketing and recruiting efforts. Early in my career, I would have probably resisted calls to centralize. However, I now believe that a central effort can leverage expertise and resources beyond what any individual program can bring to bear in recruiting.

Centralized recruiting efforts can’t entirely replace program efforts, but should bring experience to the table to attract prospective students into the admissions funnel. The closer a prospective student gets to the admissions review and decision, programs and faculty should take on a greater degree of responsibility. Often, faculty particularly struggle with getting inquiries into the admissions funnel which is where central support is desperately needed.

2) Lack of planning

I would venture that more than 90% of graduate programs have no comprehensive marketing and recruitment plan. There is no planning about how to drive interest in the program, identify the characteristics of prospective students, or the key strategies that will be used to recruit students.

I suspect the lack of planning stems from limited expertise and competing demands on those responsible for recruiting. Whatever the cause, the lack of planning causes serious problems for graduate programs.

3) Relying on ineffective strategies

In part because of the first two problems I’ve identified, graduate programs often rely on ineffective strategies for trying to recruit students.

For example, the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals and Noel-Levitz identified strategies that institutions say are ineffective including:

  • Local print, television and radio advertising
  • Purchasing lists of names to recruit adult learners
  • Social media
  • Using current international students to generate leads from their countries
  • Mobile specific web sites and QR codes
  • Alumni referral program
  • Advertising in discipline-specific publications

Despite the lack of effectiveness of these strategies, it is striking how many institutions still use them. The report found anywhere from 38% to upwards of 75% of the institutions survey used strategies that were widely considered ineffective.

Effective strategies

Fortunately, there are strategies that have been found to be effective including some that cost very little money.

  • Sending financial aid awards at the time of admission
  • Fellowships with and without a work obligations
  • Using web pages to attract inquiries
  • Campus visits for admitted students
  • Follow up by phone or email with students whose applications are incomplete
  • Search engine optimization

How to Effectively Recruit Graduate Students

Given the limitations that I’ve raised, how should graduate programs and universities seek to recruit graduate students?

1)  Consider the entire admissions funnel

Substantial effort and resources should be dedicated to growing the number and quality of inquiries entering the admissions funnel. This is an area where centralized graduate marketing and recruiting can prove enormously helpful. Department administration and faculty should play a greater role as an inquiry turns into an applicant and then an admitted student.

2)  Consider the prospective student search process when preparing marketing and recruiting plans

As recruiting plans and strategies are prepared, you should consider the things that a prospective student will consider- these will vary between institutions and disciplines. For example, are you in a big city that would draw in students or a isolated in a small town? What is the cost of living and how well do funding packages take this into account? These are the types of questions that any prospective student will consider regardless of discipline. Then, you should consider discipline specific questions such as career prospects after graduation.

3)  Balance centralized support with department expertise

One of the biggest challenges for higher education institutions is to balance the need for coordination and centralization with supporting local control, innovation, and differentiation. Historically, graduate recruiting has been substantially left to individual programs and departments with little centralization.

In today’s environment, this approach is likely to cause institutions to fall short of their graduate enrollment goals both in terms of quality and quantity. Instead, leveraging some level of centralized recruiting expertise with local department experience is likely to lead to a much more successful outcome and is a better answer to the question of how to effectively recruit graduate students.