Sift through the negative data on enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, and one outlier stands out. Across 2020 and 2021, the number of graduate students increased by 2.4% and 2.1%, respectively, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Good news, right? For many university leaders, it did offer sweet relief from two sour years. However, those positive results, combined with dips on the undergraduate side, have led to expectations that graduate enrollment teams can continue the momentum in the future. And that may be a challenge.
A new report from EAB and NAGAP, The Association for Graduate Enrollment Management, shows that of the more than 1,200 leaders surveyed in those offices, 46% are either actively seeking to leave their positions or would exit if presented with new opportunities. A third of the shorthanded and often under-resourced grad enrollment teams are facing an additional hurdle: their institutions didn’t gain graduate students after the pandemic hit. They lost more than 2.5% of them. Fewer institutions overall actually met graduate enrollment targets in 2021 than they did in 2020. The pressure is rising on all of them to perform, and it is taking its toll.
“There are so many people in this graduate enrollment management sector that are just totally burned out,” says Pam Royall, head of research and enrollment services for EAB. “They are working very hard and are doing jobs that were typically done by people who worked for them. Many of them are saying, ‘My job is that of a cheerleader as much as it is chief strategist.’ We know that these resignations are happening at all levels. Organizations outside of higher education are having similar shortages. That talent is being recruited from everywhere.”
The graduate enrollment sector is doing quite well—up more than 8% over the past decade—thanks in part to the surge in the flexibility provided by many institutions, especially in online course delivery for busy adult learners. The undergraduate sector is about five percentage points behind during that time.
However, the student recruitment process has been brutal. From the survey, 60% of respondents said their workloads have increased. The same percentage indicated that they had vacancies within their departments. Aside from covering for others, half said they were just tired of being forced into too many Zoom meetings. “They’re pitching in and filling in for others and they’re kind of outside their element,” Royall said. “So the added stress of trying to do somebody else’s job on top of your own job leaves you exhausted.”
So, what do they want? They say more positions filled, more flexibility, more money, more realistic goals and more understanding from campus leaders.
Help is everywhere on the report
The EAB-NAGAP report not only offers a pulse on the thoughts of graduate enrollment leaders but also provides solutions for them and for other campus stakeholders. For example, there are words of advice sprinkled throughout, including this one to improve the health and wellness of employees: “Lower expectations. Trying to figure out how to do things virtually that have historically been done in person without additional resources is a bit unrealistic when also trying to balance remote learning and mental health on top of work.”
Beyond the guidance and key takeaways, there is an array of vetted resources in each section of the guide. There are links to research reports and self-assessments that teams can use to better handle the pressure and ensure they are still reaching targets. There is also a section comparing what students want and what enrollment teams believe they want. “[Providing those resources] is such a priority for us,” Royall says. “We want everything that we do to have a prescriptive recommendation attached to it. We want to make sure that what we conclude has a ‘so now what do I do?’ outline for people.”
A key the report addresses is marketing, where the biggest percentage of recruiting is being focused (tied with virtual events). One of the pieces it links to are “seven tactics to improve attendance and engagement at virtual events.” Authors say the ability to hone targeted messages while maintaining data and feedback are essential.
“So few are marketers themselves, and they’re reliant on a marketing team that may or may not have the kind of expertise that is required for graduate programs,” Royall said. “When we think about adult learner recruitment, it’s a different beast. It is challenging. Even getting access to the prospect pool is complicated.”
Graduate enrollment teams are also being asked to build more diverse pools of students, and they have made substantial strides. From the fall of 2019 to 2020, which includes major shutdowns of the loss of about 11% of international students, enrollment teams overall grew the numbers of Latinx (10%), Asian (8%) and Black (5%) graduate students. However, even with it being a top campus priority, half of them say their institutions don’t do well at communicating or marketing their DEI efforts. It is those kinds of gaps that EAB and NAGAP are hoping to close with the report. “We believe that the future of higher education as an entire industry is being shaped in this moment,” Royall said.