How many people go to graduate school and a few other questions

Here are a few snapshots of graduate school enrollment data I’ve been playing. All of this comes from 12 month (unique head count) enrollment data (IPEDs) and US Census population estimates by age.

First, when it comes to grad school, the real college towns are cities and their suburbs.  No surprise there, because that’s where 80% of people in the US live and work. Still, although millennials in general may or may not be drifting away from urban areas, the millennials who seek advanced degrees are certainly not.

In 2015 just under 4.5% of US millennials were enrolled in graduate school someplace. That’s been a stable fraction of 20-39 year-old people enrolled in grad school since 2010.

Prior to that, the fraction of people in that age range who are in grad school has been growing steadily over the past several decades (because of the increasing popularity of the master’s degree). More and more people were going to grad school. But not anymore.

For a lot of reasons, I think that 4.5% is the key number to watch, rather than absolute enrollment numbers. Why has it plateaued? Is graduate school too expensive? Too much student debt? Has the Great Recession fundamentally changed this in some way? Will graduate schools be able to increase further the percentage of baccalaureates who go on to get an advanced degree? Or is this 4.5% a “hard” cap?

I have a sneaky suspicion that most universities are built on an enrollment growth model…which is to say that attracting a growing percentage of college grads has been key to keeping tuition rates lower than they’d be otherwise. Yikes!

Individual graduate schools will struggle to hit their enrollment targets if that 4.5% fraction remains stable. Because that means competition for students will stiffen and pressures to raise tuition revenue will become stronger.

The last, if not most, remarkable story is what I like to call the privatization issue. Graduate school enrollment at private universities has caught–and clearly surpassed–that in public institutions. This turnabout is kinda stunning. The graph shows that the growth in the percentage of people enrolled in grad school over the past 15 years can be attributed mostly to private universities.

I think there are two explanations for this trend.

First, public institutions don’t spend nearly the same on student recruitment as do private institutions. This is certainly the case at the undergrad level where privates outspend the publics at a rate of about 4 to 1 in terms of recruiting one student. So there is that institutional ethos in putting some effort into marketing that differs.

But at the graduate level, recruitment is so Balkanized finding “typical” recruitment costs is difficult. The spend per student recruited is almost certainly much lower than for undergrad recruitment at both public and private institutions. That’s mostly because nobody is really in charge of it in graduate school. Graduate school deans expect programs to fend for themselves whereas programs assume the deans are helping them out with marketing and recruitment.

When on the phone with recruiters at a public university on several occasions I’ve heard something along the lines of, “And of course I’m at a public university so I have no recruiting budget.” Of course.

That’s just not something we hear a lot when chatting with private university recruiters.

A second reason for privatization is that as the cost of attending a public university has grown, the price advantage they once had over private schools has diminished, if not evaporated completely.

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What the heck is going on at Harvard?

Two recent announcements from Harvard University have generated a lot of press. Both provide important insights into the overall state of graduate education everywhere.

Announcement 1: Harvard’s Graduate College of Arts and Sciences is reducing the number of slots for new graduate students by 4.4%. Funds are tight and something has to give. They explain it is better to cut new class sizes than to cut benefits and services for existing students.

Announcement 2: Harvard’s law school will now accept GRE scores in lieu of the LSAT. Harvard said, in effect, that the LSAT is an unnecessary barrier to entry for the types of applicants it would like to attract.

People are astounded that an institution with a multi-billion dollar endowment, albeit an underperforming one, is resource-constrained. Or that one of the most prestigious law schools in the country sees fit to lower barriers to entry. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t accept at face value the stated reasons for these changes. 

Harvard is among a cluster of super-large graduate schools…there are only about a dozen universities that award more advanced degrees than Harvard. Their graduate enrollment is the size of a small town, with an intake of close to 6000 students recently. They spend a LOT of money on new grad students because they have a lot students.

Harvard’s endowment revenue supports a large number of these students, particularly the research doctorates, for at least their first two years. Most of these students are weaned off institutional money after their second year, transitioning to support by external grants, the bulk of which are federal.

The real story here is that Harvard has actually peeked around the corner to assess how available external funding will be as these students progress through the programs. Like everybody else in academia, they see some dark clouds. The admissions cut is fiscally prudent for the near term, but I think this move is mostly a hedge against the possibility of a downturn in federal support of university research, which will make it difficult to fund all the students they have already.

As for dropping the LSAT requirement, I thought it was a brilliant move by the University of Arizona when they led the way last year, and applaud Harvard for coming around to it, too.

As with the enrollment cuts, a lot of people seem to be missing the point. This has much less to do with saving students a couple of hundred bucks or the cost of a fist full of #2 pencils. This is about stimulating more applications by reducing unnecessary (and archaic) barriers to entry.

Law school enrollment is falling. The prospect pool of LSAT takers continues to shrink and with it the depth of quality. By accepting the GRE, Harvard automatically widens its prospect pool.

Harvard is seeking out non-traditionally-minded prospects. The law firm/associate model is busted and is likely not to come back, but the demand for sophisticated legal services is growing. In particular, there is a need for lawyers with backgrounds in finance, cyber, engineering, “global” and health care backgrounds. Those people are swimming in the GRE pool. And one presumes people with strong backgrounds in these areas plus a Harvard Law degree will be in good shape for employment. 

To turn the corner and become relevant again law schools will need to establish two things. First, that their degrees have some value in the employment market. Second, they will need to compete in wider market for prospects, where their competition is not just other law schools, but other academic specializations potential grad students are contemplating. Harvard’s GRE move is a step to accomplish both of these.

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Research spending by universities is picking up the slack…for now

Most graduate schools are places where a lot of research happens, and with it research spending. It’s pretty interesting to poke around in the HERD data from time to time to take the temperature of the overall ecosystem. HERD is the National Science Foundation’s survey of University R&D activity, and is something the NSF has tracked since before the days of Sputnik. #timeseries

In 2015 over 900 institutions in the US reported a collective Science and Engineering R&D spend of just over $65 billion, the highest ever. (I’m graphing only S&E R&D spending, rather than all R&D spending, because its a longer time series and because it dwarfs (by about 20-fold) the non-S&E research that happens at universities….NTTAWWT.)

Three things jump out at me from that graph. First, research spending at universities has increased almost 10 times since the early 80’s to the present. That’s a lot. I mean, these universities are very, very different organizations compared to when the parents of today’s graduate students were in college.

Second, federal dollars are the lion’s share of university R&D spending and always have been. The running average over the last several decades is 63% of university research spending is on federally-funded projects. That’s a lot.

Third, some leveraging is going on here, in one direction or the other. Either the federal dollars are leveraged to drive other sources for research spending, or the latter are leveraged to attract more federal dollars. My money is on the latter.

Although the total R&D spend at universities is higher then ever, the spending of federally-sourced dollars by universities continues its unprecedented slide from a peak in 2011, where it was over $3 billion higher than in 2015. This is worrisome trend, and more worrisome given the chaos in Washington today.

Given these big decrements in the federal money source, what explains peak research spending in 2015? Institutional funds within universities! Meaning, yes, those big endowments are being put to good use.

In 2015 universities financed a higher fraction of their R&D cost than they ever have before, more than accounting for the loss of federal funding.

In 2015 over 25% of R&D spending was actually from institutional money. That’s a full 8 points higher than their running average contribution of ~17%. Meanwhile, at a 56% share, spending of federal dollars at universities hasn’t been this low since…before the days of Sputnik.

It’s also worth pointing out, almost as an aside but not really, the comparitively low fraction of R&D spending at universities attributable to state funds and to corporate activities. Simply put, state governments and corporations are not major investors in university R&D activities.

In various conversations I’ve found that business people are shocked by this, and typically assume the opposite is true…that states spend too much of their taxes on universities, and that corporations fund universities deeply.

Neither is true. Our universities are federal institutions.

I presume the relationship between federal and institutional research spending is less about taking control of one’s house, and more reflects an age-old pattern of hunt and parry, as Steinbeck might say. Institutional funds seem to function as a buffer mechanism.

University institutional spending looks a lot like it rises and falls against the waning and waxing of federal funds. Universities need to run on more predictable budgets than allowed for by a strict dependence upon the sometimes helter skelter pattern of federal funding. Internal funds pick up the slack when necessary.

Over almost 6 decades, it is almost as if universities have operated with every right to expect it will always be done this way. The only questions are how long can universities sustain a waning federal support for their research mission? Will this plug-the-gap mechanism handle a catastrophic reduction in federal research dollars?

This may be tested shortly.

 

 

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How to Stand Out as a Memorable Candidate for Grad School

Contrary to popular belief, high test scores and a perfect GPA do not make for a memorable candidate. At least, not on their own. Sure, having test scores in the 99th percentile and a perfect GPA in challenging and relevant coursework are fantastic. But by their very definition, very few people have those numbers. Graduate schools everywhere would surely shrivel up and die on the vine if numbers were all it took to stand out and be a memorable candidate.

We chatted not too long ago with a professor who runs a PhD “program” that, in fact, holds such lofty standards. As a result, they have not enrolled a new student in the past 5 years. If the program is empty is it still a program? I’m not so sure.

For most programs though – and we mean the real kind with actual students here – numbers mostly serve as thresholds. Every program decides their own thresholds based on what they think is a good indicator of potential success in their program.Two neighboring programs at the same institution could have widely different thresholds. Think of these numbers as a way to get your foot in the door: the better the numbers, the more doors you can open (generally speaking).  

What often matters most is what happens once you are “in the room”, so to speak. Your numbers may put you into the consideration set, but most people would be surprised to learn that numbers are rarely what makes someone stand out and be a memorable candidate. Once you are in the room, your due diligence as an applicant and other less quantitative qualities are what matter most.

If not the numbers, what REALLY counts?

So what is it exactly about certain applicants that makes them stand out? Over the years, I’ve become VERY familiar with the student application process and what makes some candidates very memorable while others fade from memory soon after their interview. I’ve reviewed hundreds of applications, interviewed scores of students, and spent countless hours in admissions committee meetings for a handful of our graduate programs at Emory University, including our pharmacology and our MD/PhD programs, which typically have acceptance rates of 10% or less. Since starting Gradschoolmatch, I’ve been even more immersed in these issues, speaking with many people who run programs at other universities and identifying what types of student profiles stand out, so I know that what I’m sharing with you isn’t just my personal opinion – it’s a fact.

Speaking from our joint experiences, standout candidates have the following characteristics in common.

Being a memorable candidate means being a red gummy bear in a sea of white gummy bears.
Stand out in a GOOD way.

A memorable candidate has:

  • A strong background and experiences in an area relevant to what she wants to study
  • Clear insights about his/her core motivations
  • An overarching vision that connects the dots from his/her academic and work history to grad school to future career plans
  • Evaluated the program structure carefully to understand its various strengths and weaknesses relative to his/her own interests and goal
  • Reviewed the program people and understands the scope of their specializations
  • An ability to articulate how well his/her own interests aligns with what the program offers and what he/she can uniquely bring to the program

There is much more that could and should be said on this subject, but the bottom line is that it is not some je ne sais quois. It really is not complicated at all: numbers allow you to be considered, but it is EVERYTHING else that makes you a unique applicant with the ability to stand out. Through due diligence and preparation, a memorable candidate demonstrates clearly that he/she is familiar with what it takes to excel and how he/she can contribute to a program. They stand out because, through self-reflection and researching programs thoroughly, they can make a strong case that they belong.

So you want to be a memorable candidate? Make sure you can honestly and thoroughly answer the following questions.

  1. What about your background (educational or professional experience) has prepared you for an advanced degree in this field?
  2. Why are you interested in pursuing further education in this field?
  3. What do you intend to get out of graduate schools and how does that relate to your future career aspirations? How does this particular program fit into that vision?
  4. Why are you specifically interested in this program out of all of those in the same field? Which of the program’s strengths lend themselves well to your goals? Which professors or courses particularly interested you?
  5. Why is now the right time for you to pursue a graduate degree?
  6. What is it that you (and only you) can bring to the program?

If you’re able to articulate the answers to those questions, you have a much higher chance of standing out from the pack (in a good way). Lastly, it may go without saying, but they don’t want uninteresting or rude intellectuals milling about their campus; they are looking for people they would want to be around and work with, so don’t leave your manners or conversational skills at home.

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From Insights to Action: How To Develop A Recruiting Action Plan

Wondering why you need an action plan? Having data is great, but using it is far more valuable.

Collecting data is only half the battle; it’s what you do with it that really matters. In the words of McKinsey’s big data specialists, “Data is meaningless unless it helps make decisions that have measurable impact...Generating value from [data] is a matter of connecting data to insights to action in a fast, repeatable way.”  (Source: Forbes).  Long story short: collect data and use it to inform your strategy and subsequent action plan.

Your Dashboard provides the data you'll need for your Action Plan
Your Dashboard provides the data you’ll need for your Action Plan

Our new Dashboard tool has the first half covered, but it’s up to you to complete the second half. Continue reading for all the tools you’ll need to put your insights to work.

To develop your program’s tailored (and well-informed) plan, follow these four steps:

1. Figure out where you stand

The first step in deciding on a realistic plan of action is figuring out where you are today. Take a look around and be honest. From 90,000 feet, what do you see? Look over your recruiting results over the past few years – how close are you to where you’d like to be?

Consider the answers to questions like the following to get the full picture:

  • How do your incoming Bookmarks compare to your outgoing Bookmarks?
  • What percentage of your total Matches from 2016 became applicants? Is this a number you’d like to increase? If so, by how much? (Remember, Gradschoolmatch acts as a funnel to deliver your best Matches, but like any funnel, nothing will come out if nothing goes in!)
  • Are your Collaborators bookmarking prospects, responding to incoming Bookmarks and, most importantly, engaging with Matches through personal messages? If not, who could you add as Collaborators to be more effective – current graduate students, faculty, admin, etc – based on the type of questions you’ve gotten from prospects?

Asking yourself these questions will help you analyze your success in different areas of recruiting.

2. Decide where you want to go 

Imagine your action plan as the keys to hitting a bullseye this year.
Set your targets for the year and keep your eye on the prize.

From a bird’s eye view, you might see many possible paths to take, but you’ll need to decide which direction to go. You may choose to address your biggest weakness or you may choose to support a larger initiative your program has already decided to undertake. The point here is to be specific in what you’re trying to achieve THIS year and to limit your scope.

3. Plan your path forward

With your destination in mind, it’s time to plan your route. As a first step, consider which of these three categories you fall into based on your answer to the questions in Step 1 about your Bookmarking performance.

Did you find that your program:

A) Had an equal number of outgoing and incoming Bookmarks,

B) Received more Bookmarks than you sent (incoming>outgoing) or

C) Sent more Bookmarks than you received (incoming<outgoing)?

Your Action Plan should ultimately get you from your starting point to your desired destination.
Map out your starting point and destination and develop an Action Plan that will get you from Point A to Point B.

No matter which category you fall into, you are not stuck there, nor are you guaranteed to stay there. The process of developing an Action Plan is your first step to improving your success.

A few quick suggestions depending on where you ranked (before we move on to the nitty gritty):

  • If your Bookmark counts were equal, that’s great! It probably means you like everybody who likes your program. Go through the Stop-Continue-Start framework (below) to make sure this year is at least as good as last year. Analyze how many of these Matches became applicants (and how many of those were accepted, and subsequently enrolled). To increase the number of applicants and subsequent enrollees you’ll need to increase your engagement with the Matches you have, or generate more. Bookmark a few more prospects each month and follow up with personal messages explaining what about their profile caught your eye, and be specific. Schedule phone calls. Make yourself available to answer any questions they have. Your expertise is your greatest recruiting asset.
  • If your incoming Bookmarks exceeded your outgoing Bookmarks – you are probably missing out on great students! Your program is getting a lot of attention that is going unreciprocated, and if that’s not intentional (as in, they are not students you are interested in), your recruiting funnel has a leak! Consider adding more Collaborators who can review incoming Bookmarks and potentially send a Bookmark (and a message) back, and schedule those phone calls! You’ll definitely want to make the most of students seeking YOU out since they’ve already expressed interest on their end.
  • If your outgoing Bookmarks exceeded your incoming Bookmarks, analyze why your outgoing Bookmarks may not be reciprocated. Is your profile page missing information that may attract students? Are you following up Bookmarks with a warm, personal message to students to tell them why you are interested in them specifically? If not, you may be missing out on making quality connections (students may think you are blanket Bookmarking anyone who fits your criteria). Could your program benefit from having more collaborators engaging with Bookmarked students?

You may also consider using the Stop-Continue-Start framework to connect the dots from your current state to your ideal state.

Stop: Identify activities or initiatives that were unsuccessful or not as productive as you had hoped. If you’re not getting engagement with group messaging, stop sending them. Did you try something new that didn’t work out the way you thought they would? These are the types of things that should be stopped, as the time you spend on these things could be better used in the future (e.g. on the activities you will be continuing or starting).

Continue: Identify areas of strength and past success. What has your team done that has produced great results? Are these initiatives repeatable or scalable? List those activities in this category, as these are the types of initiatives you should definitely continue to leverage (and scale, if possible) to achieve recruiting success. Note: This category can also include activities that may not have been hugely successful, but can be modified to produce better results.

Start: Identify a few tactics you’d like to start this year. These may be things you have seen other programs do with great results or just new ideas you’d like to test. Based on what you decided in Step 2, specify a few tactics that will help you better achieve your stated goals.

The list you just created will allow you to see clearly where your energy is best spent and how to trim the fat. From this list, write out a specific Action Plan that outlines particular goals. These goals should be realistic and quantifiable, and can include things like:

  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to send each month (outgoing)
  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to receive each month (incoming)
  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to send to prospects who meet certain criteria (e.g. URM, particular background or experience, etc).
  • How many candidates you’d like to send personal messages to
  • How many prospects you’d like to schedule calls with
  • How many active collaborators you’d like to have (Pro Tip: Set up different kinds of users – faculty, current students, admin, etc – as Collaborators so that interested students are getting all of the information and attention they need and deserve. More is usually better, but definitely prioritize quality over quantity)

Using the S.M.A.R.T. goal format, try to structure your goals as follows: Reach out (actionable) to ________ (specific, measurable, agreed-upon) students using Gradschoolmatch by _________ (time-based).

3. Go forth and prosper!

This step will take a little longer than others, as you probably guessed. This is when you put your plan to work, where the rubber meets the road. Leverage your team’s strengths to implement your Action Plan – divide and conquer, if you will. Using your Gradschoolmatch account, identify students who would be a great fit for your program(s) and make a personal connection early on. Refer back to your Action Plan to make sure you are staying on track, from time to time.

4. Don’t forget the feedback loop

Rinse and repeat AKA review your action plan and make a new one.
No Action Plan is foolproof or universal so make sure to revisit it every year to make necessary changes based on the outcomes you achieved.

This is the “rinse and repeat” portion of the activity. You must revisit your plan after each recruiting cycle for this process to work well. Refer back to your S.M.A.R.T. goals to see how your results stacked up. Go back through the Start-Stop-Continue framework and adjust your goals for the following year.

Need help collecting insights from your dashboard or developing an Action Plan based on what you’re seeing? Contact us! We’d love to help you make the most of your account using our new Dashboard tool and get you set up for a successful 2017!

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How to Attract the Right Kind of Applicants to Your Program

Attracting the right applicants isn’t an exact science, but there definitely is an art to it.

The short of it: Approach prospective students on a personal, one-to-one level, and be yourself.

The magic happens when a one-way conversation becomes a dialogue between applicants and programs.
The magic happens when a one-way conversation becomes a dialogue.

That’s it. That’s all you need to know to attract the right applicants to your program.

It’s surprisingly THAT simple, and so is the rationale. They need (and value) your expertise and willingness to offer some guidance. If you provide them with what they need, they will respond in kind.

Why is operating on a personal level the key to attracting the best applicants? 

  • You are an expert at spotting the right student.

    Your experience enables you to easily identify someone likely to have the proper credentials and interests for your program. You can see in them what they might not see in themselves.

  • Going to grad school is a HUGE decision.

    They are in the process of making a life-changing decision based on imperfect (and often conflicting and confusing) information. They don’t want to make a mistake.

  • The clarity you can provide is invaluable.

    Prospects have far too many options –often there are a few hundred programs a student might reasonably consider– which makes focusing on “the right few” very, very difficult. The choices can be overwhelming and your guidance here is both valued and welcomed.

  • They operate in a guidance vacuum that only you can fill.

    Applicants coming straight out of undergrad don’t find their campus’ career guidance centers helpful for graduate school decisions. Their college-grad, working counterparts aren’t any better off. They’re likely disconnected from the academic world and are mostly on their own to navigate the process.

  • Influencer networks are everything.

    The set of programs prospective students consider come from recommendations by people they know – their influence network. This network is usually made up of colleagues, family, friends and just about anyone reasonable with something to say on the subject. You can make an incredible impact as an expert in a field they are interested in pursuing. Applicants greatly appreciate information coming directly from the source and they will heed your advice.

  • Spam messages don’t cut through the clutter, but personal messages do.

    Grad student hopefuls don’t pay attention to spam or intrusive advertising any more than do you. Plus, they have spam guards and ad blockers and are bombarded with somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 messages daily, depending on who you ask. At some point, all the marketing messages and perfectly prepared websites start to look and sound the same. This is when a personal message speaks the loudest.

On the last point, we’d like to reiterate that spam messaging and general advertising (including your website) are very poor substitutes for a human connection.

Advertising can’t:

  1. Spot the right student
  2. Hear what students dream of doing with their lives
  3. Validate (or invalidate) conclusions already reached or provide guidance
  4. Build the relationship you need with applicants in order to attract them to your graduate program

Graduate schools are in a continuous cycle of relearning how to attract top applicants and understanding where the internet comes into play in that process. As Wharton professor and information systems expert Eric Clemons wrote,

“The internet is the most liberating of all mass media developed to date. It is participatory, like swapping stories around a campfire or attending a renaissance fair. It is not meant solely to push content, in one direction, to a captive audience, the way movies or traditional network television did.”  (Source: Why Advertising is Failing on the Internet)

In other words: harness the power of the internet to create a dialogue with applicants and spread good quality information. The key to making good use of the internet to attract the right graduate students is to lean towards participatory systems.

We built Gradschoolmatch to help address this need and allow you to reach and connect with the best students for your program, and we’d be more than happy to help you make the most of it. Feel free to reach out with any comments or questions you might have.

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Advertising is bad manners

Graduate programs shouldn’t advertise.

The alternative?

Ask someone if they’d like some guidance, then just be yourself.

As Doc Searls says

All that should stand between any two entities on the Net are manners, permission and convenience. Any company and any customer should be able to connect with any other, without an intermediary, any time and in any way they both want — provided agreements and methods for doing that are worked out.

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