Choosing a grad school program is a classic forked-path problem

I’ve just returned from a long overdue break out west, spent in part on the streams and trails of the spectacular Absaroka wilderness area in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. I intended to unplug from the grid completely and not consider work at all, but the mind doesn’t always cooperate.

On trail one day a thought suddenly struck me: Choosing a grad school program, at one level, is the same problem a traveler in unfamiliar territory faces running into a forked path.

I admit this metaphor is not particularly novel. But it serves as a handy launching point to think through the extraordinary problem students and graduate programs face every application cycle.

How do you go about choosing a grad school program that is right for you?

The decision on the trail is pretty simple compared to what our future graduate students face. On the trail, typically only two options are at hand…left or right.

Still, there is always a sense of apprehension and uncertainty. Left might take you up a hillside occupied by a momma grizzly bear lording over the valley with her cubs, whereas right might take you down to that cool stream full of big trout.

The only possible error is one of commission–choosing the wrong path under the worst case could take you to a very large unwelcoming bear, or under the best case to a missed fishing opportunity.

In a couple of key aspects prospective graduate students are faced with a far more challenging problem than a hiker. Far too many make errors of commission. But the main problem is the sheer scale of options. For a given academic specialization, a solid prospect could find anywhere from several dozen to hundreds of different graduate programs that would make sense.

That’s a lot of possible paths. Too many.

Their set size is so large that students can’t possibly consider them all. In fact, they miss knowing about nearly all the programs that would fit them well.

Instead they end up focusing on only a handful of programs, constructed partly on the basis of guidance from people they know, many of whom have no particular direct expertise in advising which programs might be better for them.

These students are making a second type of error, one of omission. Omission errors are so large that they are far more likely to completely miss the right program than they are to apply to the wrong one.

Consider a student that might be expected to fit, logically, within 100 different programs. The typical student will only research 8% of them, and then apply to only 4%.

They overlook 92% of the programs that would otherwise fit.

What all of this means for graduate programs is not all that complicated. To create a stronger applicant pool will involve getting more of the right people who don’t know about your program to take a look at it. And then offering them a touch of expert guidance while you have their attention.

That’s where real opportunity to move the needle lies.

The Gradschoolmatch solution

First, we simplify the exploration set for students while equipping programs, for the first time, with the ability to seek out the kinds of prospects they prefer for their program. We show the right programs to the right students. And vice-versa.

Our match algorithm suggests the right programs for students to consider, while also creating lists of prospective students for programs. This is all on the basis of the information each puts into their Gradschoolmatch profiles. The better the information each provides, the higher quality fits that we are able to generate for you and them.

That’s precision.

Next, our communication functions offer prospects and programs alike a way to express interest in each other.

Programs perform the essential task of informing those who they see as the the right students that that their program exists.

Meanwhile, students can express interest in programs to see if they are a fit. The exchange of interests is bidirectional. For programs and students alike all of this happens with a single click of button.

That’s simple.

Perhaps the most common feedback we hear from student users is their surprise to discover good programs they had not previously considered in places they weren’t looking. Going further, these programs can offer guidance to prospects.

How? Rather than composing a canned marketing message, try something powerful in its simplicity.

Send a message such as: “Here’s my program, take a look because your background and interests seems like we might be a good fit for you. And please let me know if you have any questions.”

That’s human. That’s word-of-mouth. And that’s something that happens all of the time in the hallway, on an elevator or out in the courtyard.

Now it can happen on the internet.

That’s effective.

Guiding prospects, not marketing to them, is the secret to recruiting success

When contemplating a proactive recruitment strategy here’s a few things worth knowing about your target.

Future graduate students are about to make a huge decision. They’ve arrived to a point in their lives where they are staking their career trajectories on this graduate school choice. What they don’t know makes them apprehensive. They struggle with the decision. They don’t want to make a mistake. And they are leery of being exploited.

Also, it should go without mentioning that their appetite for intrusive banner ads, blinking sidebars and spam is no greater than yours. In fact, millennials use ad blocker software at higher rates than any other demographic.

Finally, they use a variety of specialized apps to find information and communicate in myriad ways.

Rather than wasting your resources on inefficient and impersonal advertising, or barging into their social spaces, you should consider ways to leverage your expertise in your academic specialty and graduate program culture.

The students who you want in your program are doing a lot of homework, grinding over a big decision, and slowly discovering that’s the help they are looking looking for! Guidance is something of value that only you can offer them.

Spotting the right prospects and offering guidance is a distinguishing feature of Gradschoolmatch.

Alyssa’s simple but powerful story is one of successful guidance, not marketing.

She found her perfect match at Vanderbilt University in no small part because Dr. Beth Bowman was there, on Gradschoolmatch, at the other end to not only spot Alyssa but also offer her the guidance she needed and deserved.

By the way, while in the Wyoming wilds we managed to take the correct path each and every time.

Not because we were lucky.

We had hired a local guide whose knowledge of the trails was so deep, he probably could have led us blind-folded. He may very well have. I was lagging too far behind most of the time to see him.


A Perfect Match

Alyssa Rodriguez USD_Senior_2015“I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was a child…Gradschoolmatch played a huge role in helping me find Vanderbilt and making my dream come true,” says Alyssa Rodriguez.

Her enthusiasm for the platform came about after she failed to get accepted into a graduate program.

“I think there are probably a few things that helped my application when I attempted again,” she says. “On the second try, I did have work experience, which looked good. But what really made the difference was the ability to highlight the amount and variety of my research work on my Gradschoolmatch profile…I feel that was easily overlooked in the traditional application.”

Rodriguez found Gradschoolmatch to be very user friendly; program administrators started sending her messages and bookmarks on her first day.

One of the first she heard from was Beth Bowman, Ph.D., assistant director, Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical and Biological Sciences at Vanderbilt University.

“Alyssa’s profile really stood out for me and she seemed like the type of student who would excel with our program,” Bowman says.

Vanderbilt’s ranks in the top 20 biomedical sciences programs in the country and competes against universities such as Harvard, Yale, Emory and Duke for students.

“We’ve seen a 5–10 percent increase in the pool of students looking at our program and I attribute that to Gradschoolmatch. Everything they are doing is what we wanted…I feel it is very cost-effective…it allows me to talk to as many grad school applicants as possible. We are always focused on admitting quality students, but having that larger pool is essential.”

Soon Rodriguez will be one of those students; she is eagerly looking forward to packing up and moving from Southern California to Vanderbilt’s Nashville campus and making even more progress on her goal of discovering cures for life threatening diseases.

Which, in the end, is what the perfect match is all about.


Are We At Peak Master’s Degree? Part 2

While the enrollment trouble at for-profit universities has been making all the news the past few years, graduate school enrollment has been on the decline at traditional non-profit universities, too.  The numbers of Master’s degrees, but not doctorates, awarded in the past three years has been flat. And seventy-five percent of all graduate degrees awarded each year are the Master’s. Therefore, it stands to reason that declining graduate school enrollment can be attributed largely to a reduction in Master’s program enrollment.

This begs the question; is this a transient or have we seen peak Master’s degree? Here’s a bit more evidence from the government’s data vaults that indicated Master’s program enrollment is declining, and that it probably reflects a reduction in demand for the degree. And so, yes, peak Master’s may be something in the past.

Unfortunately, although government data reports the number of heads enrolled in graduate school any given year, it doesn’t report program-level enrollment. Strictly, when we see a dip in overall graduate school enrollment, we don’t really know if that dip is due to Master’s students, to certificate students or to doctoral students.

However, given a few simple assumptions on attrition rates and time-to-degree, it is possible to infer enrollment in different degree program categories by using the number of graduate awards conferred at these levels by an institution each year.

Here, I estimate graduate enrollment as function of the ratio of certificates plus masters awards, divided by doctorates, the CM/D ratio in the figure above. In these calculations I assume a average of 2 years to degree for a Master’s student and 5 years for a doctorate, and 10% annual attrition. These assumptions work as a good first approximation for institutions that have a complicated mixture of programs, times to degree and attrition rates.

Thus, the higher the CM/D ratio, the higher the relative enrollment of Master’s to doctoral students. For example, this model calculates Master’s to doctoral student enrollment is over 4 to 1 at institutions with a CM/D award rate ratios of about 10. In other words, it is hard to have their reported award ratios without having these calculated enrollment ratios.

If reductions in enrollment are afflicting Master’s program more than others, we’d expect to see institutions with the highest percentages of Master’s students most adversely affected. Indeed, by sorting institutions by their Carnegie classification, we see the enrollment dips are more pronounced in those groups of institutions that award higher percentages of Master’s degree relative to doctorates.

For example, the most precipitous enrollment drop happens in the institutional category of large program Master’s Colleges and Universities. This large group of 377 institutions, on average, award 47.4 Master’s plus graduate certificates for every one doctorate. I calculate their ratio of enrolled Master’s to Doctoral students is almost 20 to 1, which is very high. These are institutions that must on average be taking in about 30 new Master’s matriculates for every new doctoral matriculate.

Collectively, enrollment in the large program Master’s Colleges and Universities institutional category is down a whopping 6.5% from their 2010 peak. That’s just a remarkably high shift over a short period, as the graph dramatically illustrates.

In contrast, although graduate school enrollment at Research Universities (very high research activity; aka, Research 1 institutions) is not down, it is nonetheless flat. These institutions award 3.1 Master’s and certificate degrees for every doctoral degree.   At these elite institutions, that means only a little more than half of all enrolled graduate students are in Master’s programs. Since they are such large institutions, as a group they award high absolute numbers of Master’s degrees, but the high percentage of doctoral students enrolled in their student bodies may be serving as a buffer to lessen any dramatic impact of reduced Master’s demand on the overall graduate enrollment.

Reduced graduate school enrollment is evident at institutions that award intermediate CM/D ratios. In particular, enrollment is down markedly at the Research Universities (high research activity) and Doctoral/Research Universities, where the ratio of Master’s and certificates to doctoral awards is higher than at Research 1 institutions. Enrollment at Research Universities had been relatively stable since before the year 2000, but is now down a gob smacking 7.5% from a 2011 peak!

Meanwhile, enrollment is rising in the Medical School and Medical Center category of institutions, which unlike all of these other categories, generally award more doctorates than Master’s.

Taken together, these observations along with what I’ve pointed out previously argue strongly that a systemic reduction in graduate school enrollment is on-going throughout the entire landscape of US higher education. This afflicts Master’s programs because the demand for the Master’s degrees is falling. Call it a burst Master’s bubble, call it a Master’s virus, or call it the peak Master’s degree. The appetite for the Master’s seems to have diminished markedly compared to what it was even just a few years ago.

To believe a reduction in demand doesn’t explain flat and dropping graduate school enrollments you’d need to argue that all of these hundreds of institutions simultaneously raised admissions standards.

The data I’ve analyzed here comprises that for about 1800 non-profit institutions in total. Yet, most graduate education happens in only about 500 of these institutions, which are responsible for awarding over 90% of all doctorates and 70% of all Master’s. Collectively, the graduate enrollment in these 500 institutions represents about a third of their overall student enrollment. That’s a lot.

This impact must not be easy for them to absorb, particularly if they continue to set tuition rates and treat graduate student recruitment as business as usual. In fact, on the phone recently I was told by someone working at a fairly severely impacted institution they are cutting their graduate student recruiting budget. Good grief. That’s precisely the opposite of what they should be doing given the problem they have specifically, and what is happening more generally.


Are We At Peak Master’s Degree? Part 1

peak masters

The declining levels of graduate school enrollment at non-profit US universities begs several questions. One is whether this is systemic problem or does it affect a specific graduate degree level? Since about 75% of all graduate awards each year are Master’s, declining Master’s program enrollment seems most likely to be the culprit for the 4% drop in enrollment since 2011.

It turns out, government data doesn’t break out enrollment by level of degree program, it only counts heads in school as either graduate or undergraduate. Therefore, one way to get some insight into where the impact is being felt is to look at awards data for graduate degrees, for which levels are reported.

If enrollment is dropping in Master’s degrees programs, we’d expect to see a commensurate effect on the award levels, but one that trails enrollment as the enrolled students finish their degrees but are not replaced at the old rates of matriculation.

Sure enough, for the past three years the number of Master’s degrees awarded has not dropped, but it has remained basically constant, changing 0% year-on-year since 2012. Leading up to 2011, the number of Master’s awarded had been growing at 5.2% clip year-on-year. On the accompanying chart, the end of the red line should be at the point where the existing orange line ends. This is what lost opportunity looks like.

Things never change all that fast at universities, so what we’re witnessing here is a bit like the bus hitting the proverbial brick wall while accelerating up to city street speed. Not a total calamity, but it can’t really be sustained for much longer.

The growth in doctoral awards of all kinds has not really changed much, and is moving along at about a 2.5% pace. Parenthetically, it is hard to see in the flat slope of that green doctorate curve above evidence that the US system is producing too many doctorates. We’re probably producing all that we can afford to produce given the resources.

What I think is really interesting is the relatively phenomenal growth in the awards of graduate certificates. Though fewer in number, they seem to be gaining steam. Relatively rare in the 90’s, almost 400% more were awarded in 2014 compared to 1992. In that same period Master’s awards doubled and whereas doctorates increased by about a half. Since 2011, the year of peak graduate school enrollment, certificates awards have grown at a 5.3% annual rate.

All of this very well could reflect a fundamental shift of the demand out there for the 2 to 3 year “half of a doctorate” Master’s degree. Time will tell. But it really begs the question: Have we reached peak Master’s degree? Is the Master’s value proposition diminishing? Will graduate certificates become the new Master’s?

Or is this just regression towards the mean?

See also, Are We At Peak Masters? Part 2




Hey, Non-Profit Graduate School Enrollment is Declining Too

I’ve been munging around a bit with graduate school enrollment and award data for US universities to get a sense of the overall trends and, at least in my mind, the picture is coming into focus. We’re in an unstable period right now and I think most of the people in graduate admissions and recruitment offices that we speak with on a daily basis are sensing that things are different than before. Our sense is that those at the front lines, the program directors we speak with, seem to feel things more sharply. If I had to summarize those conversations simply, we’re hearing stories of excess seat capacity and that fewer good applicants are applying.

The data visualization that seems to tell the full story for the non-profit universities only is right here in this graph, showing declines in both total and population-adjusted enrollment trends. What this shows is graduate school enrollment has declined sharply from a peak in 2011. The decline is a lot worse when the data are adjusted for US population levels. That’s almost 4% below the peak year of 2011 in a system used to growing about 0.6% year-on-year.

Separately, since starting the Gradschoolmatch project I’ve pretty much arrived at the conclusion that graduate enrollment is demand-driven. We look at our acceptance rates and like to think we’re highly selective, but that’s not exactly true. For example, as one data point to illustrate this conclusion, decent applicants (the ones who actually get into graduate school–the ones programs all want) don’t apply to many programs and are accepted by most to which they apply. They just hold the cards.

Another reason to conclude this is a demand-driven market is that for the most part, as a group, graduate schools are really poor at creating more demand. We either don’t adequately support a marketing effort or consider the marketing of our programs as an unnecessary expense. We therefore leave it to chance whether prospects find us. We don’t calculate very well the return on what a modest marketing investment can bring. We fail to see in our cost/benefit metrics how strongly even a single matriculate can drive tuition revenue or perhaps even research dollars from their discoveries.

When we recruit prospects we do so reactively, rather than proactively. For example, for the programs that do recruit, for most it only happens after an application comes in over that transom, not before it. This process of waiting and hoping is not one that creates demand.

Let’s face it, we academics are so crappy at communicating the value proposition of our universities and degree programs to prospects that we’d also probably struggle to sell a life jacket on the deck of the Titanic. When we have tried to be more proactive, we’ve bought into disappointing high cost/low precision/low yield services, when the very nature of our product, the single highly specialized graduate program, requires low cost/high precision/high yield marketing services.

Taken in this light, these enrollment numbers are just another data point I see suggesting quite strongly that the overall demand for graduate degrees is falling. Although this may just be regression to the mean, I also can’t help but wonder if we’re in a period where this is, in fact, a new normal. What concerns me is that the toxic combination of changing economic demographics, the continued spiraling costs of attending universities and excessive undergraduate student loan burden has fundamentally disrupted the appetites of people for advanced degrees. Despite the fact that the economy pays them so well and can’t seen to employ enough of them.

Declining demand is almost certainly exacerbated by the inability of specific degree programs to effectively communicate their value proposition to prospective students.

For example, if you read the twitter and blog internets of the many unhappy students out there regularly sharing their feelings, you’d be surprised to know that the vast majority of current graduate students are actually quite satisfied with their enrollment decisions. They should be, since they put a ton of effort into making their decisions and often without a lot of help from those of us in programs guiding them to us.

The graph above has enrollment numbers at for-profit universities stripped out of the data. The enrollment at for-profits is low relative to that at non-profit institutions, but it is not insignificant. For-profits are actually experiencing a more dramatic bust cycle than are the non-profits. I’ve excluded those data even though that cycle probably shares some of the drive affecting non-profit enrollment, because for-profits are also complicated by a very different dynamic than what problems might be afflicting the traditional universities.


What is Gradschoolmatch?

AreyoumymotherWe knew intuitively that Gradschoolmatch is a good idea. But what is Gradschoolmatch? By making it easy for people and graduate programs to connect before application deadlines, Gradschoolmatch solves a difficult problem faced by over a million prospective graduate students every year, and also by the tens of thousands of graduate programs they want to attend.

We’ve been so busy developing this service that we haven’t really spent much time thinking about how to classify what it is that Gradschoolmatch does. It feels innovative. It allows for a kind of marketing, but in a way that is so simple and precise and effective that it doesn’t seem like marketing. So what is this kind of service called? What do people call this method? What is Gradschoolmatch?

In a world of markets, graduate school is a pretty strange one. First, the majority who go to graduate school only acquire a single graduate degree in their lifetime. They only need to find that one perfect program. The degree only has value to that person. It can’t be sold. There is no aftermarket. Other than the market for funeral caskets, off the top of my mind I can’t think of another that self-limits on the customer side quite the same way as do graduate schools.

Second, universities that offer graduate degrees obviously want to produce graduates. But they don’t allow just anybody who wants one of their degrees to have it. Almost every program has a limited capacity. Many programs turn away perfectly suitable candidates.

Both sides, in fact, operate on highly personal and unique sets of filters to decide which of the options they’re considering is the best. At the end of the cylce, students don’t apply to many graduate programs; graduate programs don’t accept a lot of students. Graduate school is a double-sided market where each side must declare their value proposition to the other, and both sides of the cohort are imperfect. Both sides can, and do, choose to accept or reject the other.

This latter point is really important. Imagine entering a store with the intention to purchase a product after performing considerable due diligence, only to have the attendant explain that you lack the qualifications to own it and therefore can’t have it. Had you known better, your time and effort would have been better spent researching products offered by different stores. Even so, the same store owners who reject you as a customer invest considerable resources to ensure that many like yourself, if not you exactly, continue to walk through that door. They bet that a handful of them from time to time will meet their qualifications and be allowed to make a purchase.

That’s just a weird market.

Add to that the fact that there are tens of thousands of graduate programs with very unique academic offerings spread out all over the place. Then there are the millions of people with highly specific academic interests and curiosities who are even more distributed and scattered. From the perspective of any one individual working in this space it looks like two big haystacks, two small needles.

The graduate school market is one that conventional mass marketing has never really served well, not just because both sides are scattered all over the place, but also because of the highly specific filters everybody within it operates under.

For these reasons, graduate school has always been a market that operates largely on word-of-mouth.

No amount of conventional mass-marketing is ever going to change that. But it turns out that the method we’ve arrived at on Gradschoolmatch has some real possibilities, allowing for word-of-mouth to happen at scale. And that has a name we had not heard of until recently: Gradschoolmatch is Intent Casting.

Intent casting is rooted in the idea that democratized technology is more effective and efficient. A new paradigm of highly selective marketing, particularly on the internet, is approaching rapidly. By installing ad blocking browser extensions and embracing Do Not Track options, fewer and fewer internet users are willing to tolerate intrusive and nonspecific advertising or the private data consumption that drives these practices. Intent casting is the willingness of a person to share only some information about themselves, in the right forum, in ways related specifically to some future purchasing decision they intend to make.

In these forums they are discovered by those with a product to sell, who then lay out their value proposition directly. Provided a simple method to find those who have the intentions to purchase, sellers will spend fewer resources trying to create demand where little exists, and more on explaining their value proposition to highly targeted potential buyers…who have declared their intentions.

On Gradschoolmatch there is a bit of a twist since both programs and prospects intent cast. Each must convince the other of their value. Each declares their intentions in their profiles; students indicate their academic backgrounds, work histories and future interests, whereas programs declare what they offer and what they look for in prospects. Both sides of the market can find each other easily and precisely. After that, it is simply a question of reciprocal value propositions.

Gradschoolmatch strips away the veneer of wasteful mass marketing and poorly-targeted and ineffective click-a-thon arbitrage. Historically, these methods have polluted this specific marketplace to such an extent that the internet hasn’t ever really been the effective resource it should be for prospective graduate students seeking out guidance from programs. Neither has the internet been a useful tool for specialized graduate programs to market to prospects.

What is Gradschoolmatch? It is #intentcasting. Intent casting can penetrate where social media cannot, by bringing academic experts into the influence networks of prospects for a decision process that critically depends upon expert word-of-mouth; on good questions and helpful advice.

To finally know the name what we do makes me feel like that bird that searched and searched before finally finding its mother.