How many graduate school applications can you expect in the coming year?

As Yogi Berra (probably should have) said, the only sure way to know what will happen in the future is to get the past behind you. Instead of waiting for your 20-20 hindsight to kick in, though, we wanted to share our (sobering) predictions for the upcoming graduate school application seasons to help you better prepare.

We’ve spotted five troubling trends aligning on the horizon that are likely to slacken demand for graduate school–significantly–beginning this year. The conspirators are:

1) Unfavorable demographics

The average number of baccalaureates awarded in the US during each of the past few years has been very stable, at about 1.8 million. Traditionally, about half of every graduating class ends up in an advanced degree program at some point over the following few years.

Source: NCES

While that may sound like a good thing, a flat rate of college graduate production is actually problematic for US graduate schools, which over the past several decades have relied on steady annual growth in the numbers of fresh baccalaureates, which in turn drive growing graduate admissions. That growth trend looks to have finally plateaued.

If your job is to predict demand for graduate degrees at your university or college over the next 5-10 years, the best leading indicators to look at are high school and undergraduate enrollment numbers. Spoiler alert: the numbers are sobering.

2) Reduced influx of foreign students

Historically, foreign students have nicely filled some of the excess capacity in graduate schools left empty by US students. Indeed, in recent years foreign students have been responsible for the lion’s share of the positive growth rate in graduate enrollment. Today, there are troubling signs that foreign applications to US graduate schools —largely in STEM fields— may decline sharply.

Although the Trump administration’s hostile posture against foreigners (e.g. the infamous travel ban) deserves attribution, that’s probably not the full story. The improving economies of China and India, in particular, are providing better employment opportunities at home for the high quality students who would have otherwise emigrated to the US for graduate school.

3) Student loan burden

It’s not news that recent college grads bear a heavy education debt (over two-thirds of US baccalaureates leave school with student loan debt averaging nearly $30,000), but that may have reached a tipping point.

Here’s why: The standard financial advice they’re given is to graduate with a total student loan debt less than their expected annual starting salary. An advanced degree may double (or triple or worse) that debt burden, which is increasingly incompatible with that advice. While people with advanced degrees generally out-earn those with undergraduate degrees in the same field, for many–especially women who are impacted by the “gender tax”, and who comprise close to 60% of all graduate students–the earnings differential is not enough to justify the exorbitant debt of an advanced degree.

4) Chaotic federal policy

US higher education policy is in pure chaos. The uncertainty is undoubtedly affecting those who are considering graduate school today because a lot of this federal policy directly impacts student’s pocketbooks.

The Trump administration  has proposed extreme cuts for the federal agencies that fund scientific research and humanities programs on US campuses, not only threatening coveted research training programs, but also putting at risk a HIGHLY  significant source of revenue at universities where most graduate training occurs. They’re rolling back Obama-era protections against exploitative practices, such as those in the for-profit university sector. They’ve attacked university affirmative action practices that threaten to reverse hard-won improvements in attracting under-represented groups to advanced degree programs. They’ve even threatened the Public Student Loan Forgiveness program, affecting the over half-million current enrollees and anybody who is considering using this program in mapping out their career.

If all of this isn’t bad enough, current federal student loan policies look to be reconfigured in some way. By design, graduate students are likely to be the big losers in any loan policy restructuring.

Few could be blamed for deciding to wait for some of the dust to settle before applying.

5) Improving job market

Graduate programs have always had an ambivalent relationship with the jobs that recent college graduates hire onto. On one hand, many programs insist that their applicants have relevant work experience. On the other, graduate programs compete against employers for those very same people.

As the US unemployment rate returns to pre-Great Recession levels, the only allies graduate programs likely have in an improving economy are stagnant wages. Any wage improvement will further strain the ability of graduate programs to lure prospective students out of employment.

Summary

As Yogi Berra (probably should have) said, it seems hard to keep up with the status quo when it keeps changing. Graduate enrollment is entering a non-growth phase. Applicants, who have always been in the drivers seat simply because they choose where to apply and enroll, will have more control over their fates than ever before.

Passive recruitment practices (e.g., waiting and hoping for enough good applicants to roll in) are less and less likely to provide most graduate programs the students they want and need. This is a good time to adopt proactive recruitment practices. We recommend outreach–that you invest a little in letting people who are thinking about grad school know that your program exists. Engagement with the prospects before they even apply is not only good mentoring, it is also a proven way to successfully drive applications and enrollment.

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Tweet of the year

Same applies to graduate programs. If you’re marketing, you’re not mattering.

Market less. Mentor more.

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People research their grad school options for a long time

How long do people research their grad school options? If you ever wondered, now we have an answer for you, from some data we’ve managed to wrestle out of our system. The average person spends about 18 months researching where to go to graduate school for their masters degree or doctorate. Half take longer than that.

time spent researching grad school options
The average and median time spent researching grad school options is 18 months

Let’s give that some perspective. “Time to decision” is the bane of every academic’s existence. That’s the period between when you submit an article to a journal to when the journal accepts (or rejects) it for publication. Good journals tend to be pretty quick…they’ll take about a month for time to decision. It’s not unheard of for other journals to take as long as 3 months.

The average future grad students tends to take about 6 times longer to make up his/her mind about their grad school options then the worst least author-centered academic journal.

Whereas slow academic journals have process problems, the extended timeline for future grad students is almost certainly driven by uncertainty. They won’t make that decision until they’ve convinced themselves its in their best interests. As they should. They’ll know the right program when they find it.

The take home message: Graduate student recruitment is a long game that rewards the patient mentor, while punishing the quick turn marketer

The Gradschoolmatch hypothesis is not really complicated. When program experts reach out to prospects to explore whether there is a fit, they convey expert advice. Those prospects learn more quickly. That one-to-one interaction provides the help they need to shorten their timeline to a decision.

That’s just not something marketing can do.

Be human. Be yourself. Market less. Mentor more.

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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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Gradschoolmatch is to guidance like the microwave is to cooking

radarange_so_newI’m not only old enough to remember the first microwave ovens, I’m old enough to remember that they were called radar ranges. Ack! But these machines have been on my mind since the early days of the Gradschoolmatch project.

Our goal was to do what we have done: create a space where guidance happens. The conceptual premise is based upon observations that interactions with someone knowledgeable is how most people end up choosing where to attend graduate school.

At one early point we were advised by an insightful businessman that in Gradschoolmatch we may have another microwave oven story on our hands.

Briefly, in the early days, people were reticent to adopt the microwave because they had perfectly good stoves and ovens with which to accomplish the same result. Sales only grew after the microwave manufacturers were able to convince consumers that microwave cooking could be effective, not to mention quick and convenient.

A similar friction probably exists in the graduate school recruiting space. The old way of doing things is to hope enough applications fly in over the transom and that enough of them are good. At the same time, everybody agrees the status quo is crappy. Really good prospects struggle to find the right place and need our help. Many of them end up in the wrong programs. Meanwhile, seats in really good programs go unfilled.

All of the evidence indicates that one-to-one engagement with prospective students is the driver of better matriculation rates. Still, there is a lot of skepticism that something novel and innovative, like Gradschoolmatch–which promotes one-to-one engagement between programs and prospects–can be a solution.

Here are the most common reactions we get from people, and our responses.

“I don’t know how to recruit.”

You don’t have to. Just offer guidance to someone considering an advanced degree in you specialty. That’s actually very effective recruiting because you know everything about what they are looking for.

“We have a perfectly good program website.”

Great program websites are only useful when the prospects you want find them. Still, they are no replacement for the human touch.

“We have plenty of applications.”

Matriculates are more important than applications. Meanwhile, how many do you lose to other programs in your specialty?

“I don’t have enough time.”

Think of guidance as immunization against dropoutitis. You’ll spend far more time on dealing with the latter.

“Our faculty won’t get involved in recruiting.”

Did they ever have a tool that makes engagement with prospects and offering guidance so easy?

“We just buy email lists.”

The people receiving your spam don’t like spam any more than you like spam.

“Does it work?”

Absolutely. When used the way it is designed.

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“The Right Match”: How Gradschoolmatch Launched One Student’s Career

The Right Match (Diverse Issues in Higher Education, September 8, 2016).

Student who found perfect match in her new graduate program.
Source: Diverse Issues in Higher Education

“The first time Alyssa Rodriguez applied to graduate school, she ended up being waitlisted. But when no spot opened up, she began work as an associate scientist at a small biopharmaceutical company in San Diego.

“My original plan was to work in [the] industry for at least two years and then apply to graduate school again,” says Rodriguez, who graduated from the University of San Diego in 2015 with a degree in biochemistry. Once I had accepted the fact that I would not be starting graduate school in fall 2015, I started my graduate school research once again that summer.”

Only this time around, Rodriguez discovered and ultimately decided to use GradSchoolMatch.com – a new website that seeks to match prospective grad school students with graduate schools.

It only took a day before Rodriguez started to see results.

“The next day, I checked my profile and was very surprised to see that I had already received messages from various graduate school program directors,” Rodriguez says. “I was in such shock that I shared the news with my mom that programs were interested in my profile.”

Rodriguez says what surprised her the most was that she could clearly see that the messages were “not spam and that truly there were assistant deans and directors on the other end of the message.”

One of those messages came from Beth Bowman, assistant director of graduate programs in biomedical sciences at Vanderbilt University.

Bowman considers GradSchoolMatch.com a “fantastic avenue for graduate programs to get to know individual candidates in the global applicant pool.”

“This sort of individual communication not only allows programs to showcase what they have to offer, but also allows a program to individualize their communication to a specific student,” Bowman says. “Personal recruiting is the best avenue to bring students to any program and GradSchoolMatch makes this ideal recruiting strategy a reality.”

Asked if the website was simply a nice thing to have or a necessity to attract and engage candidates, Bowman says: “I think more and more, this site is getting close to being a necessity for graduate program recruiting for any program interested in getting to know their applicants.

“These days, there are so many programs on the site that a student may miss out on a program that doesn’t have a presence here.”

Bowman says the website – which is free to students – helps facilitate the diversity of candidates as well.

“In my mind, this site helps to promote diversity of candidates in the program simply by being a free site and avenue for programs and candidates to get to know each other,” Bowman says. “This helps to remove any cost barrier that is typically present in a graduate program application process.”

Bowman says the website has helped Vanderbilt by increasing the number of candidates that the school can communicate with during the application process. “We are pleased to be able to pick the candidates that fit our program best,” Bowman says.

Inside the site

GradSchoolMatch.com was started by T.J. Murphy, an associate professor of pharmacology at Emory University.

He says that the website has around 400,000 user profiles and that the number is growing daily. About 30 percent of the student users are underrepresented minorities and about 20 percent are from overseas, he says.

The students come from a range of academic disciplines and specializations, Murphy says.”

Please click here to read the complete article in Diverse Issues in Higher Education (September 8, 2016).

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Find students and engage them on Gradschoolmatch

control_panel
The Gradschoolmatch Director’s control panel

Most students have an influence network and start their graduate program search on the basis of word-of-mouth. That’s always been our key insight. As a result, Gradschoolmatch operates on two very simple premises. First, people in graduate programs are in the best position to guide prospects because they have incredible expertise to offer. Second, prospects benefit greatly when receiving expert guidance.

If word-of-mouth is how they find programs, the most effective way for graduate programs to recruit new students is to join their influence network. Simply find those with the proper backgrounds and interests for your program and offer them some guidance. Recruiting success lies on the human scale.

This is not at all complicated. Take these four simple steps to do that on Gradschoolmatch.

Step 1: Edit Your Profile

Why? Our search engine reads everything that you enter into your graduate program profile. Sure, you want prospects reading all of that. But we take your profile information and turn it into a sophisticated search query. Running automagically in the background, this delivers continuously to your program the prospects who fit best. That saves you from having to run search queries over and over.

How? Click on ‘Edit Profiles‘, then click on the green buttons with white pencils for each section. Fill out everything, find a save button and click it. Most especially, be sure to select a dozen or so academic fields to describe what your program offers. Do the same for the academic fields you like to see in your prospect’s backgrounds.

Step 2: Find Students

Why? Well, it seems obvious, but which is better? Hoping students discover your program, or finding students you’d like to see in your program?

How? After you’ve completed step 1, click on ‘Find Students‘. The students on this list are the output from that sophisticated, running-all-the-time search query I mentioned above.

These prospects in our system best match your program, from top to bottom. We think. If you don’t like who you see, go back and edit your profile until you start seeing the kinds of students you like. To search for others, click on the green button on the top right labeled ‘Search for specific criteria‘.

Step 3: Bookmark Students

Why? Now that you’ve found them, you want them to see you. Bookmark does that. To Bookmark a prospect is to say, “Hi, my program is interested in you!” Students notice that.

How? Open a student’s profile by clicking on their name. If you like who you see, click the big green ‘Bookmark‘ button. Two things follow that. First, Gradschoolmatch delivers an email notifying the student of your interest. Second, their profile automagically transports to your ‘My Prospects page‘, where you can track, sort and rate everybody you’ve Bookmarked…and who has Bookmarked you.

Some student profiles don’t have a lot of information. That just means they haven’t signed in. But they see those emails come in and open a lot of them. A Bookmark from you might be all it takes to get an engagement started.

The data are very clear. Bookmarking generates interest. The programs that pro-actively Bookmark prospects draw the most interest from prospects on the site. Passive programs receive less interest.
Step 4: Message Students

Why? Remember the part about word-of-mouth? Here’s where that really happens.

How? Click on ‘Message‘ on a student’s profile. Type your message and–after giving the Golden Rule some thought–hit the send button.

About that Golden Rule. Do you like spam? Neither do they. So please omit the canned, copy-and-pasted marketing message. Nobody reads that.

Just be yourself, which is undoubtedly personal, friendly, helpful, encouraging, sophisticated and even humorous. And if that is not your personality, then ask one of your grad students who has some to help out!

Provide some quick and to-the-point guidance, and please be sure to key off of something that impressed you in their profile. Then ask for a phone call, or a Skype, or for more information. That’s engagement.

And good grief, if you see enough information that you’d like to see their application, then tell them so!

Please remember that you’re offering to join their influence network. That’s a privileged space.

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