Reimagining Graduate Student Recruitment: 4 Tips to Get Started

Students pursue advanced degrees with the promise of invaluable research opportunities, specialized skills, and increased earning potential. Accordingly, many college and university graduate programs have grown significantly over the last few decades. In fact, from 2011 to 2021, the rate of growth of earned master’s and doctoral degrees outpaced bachelor’s and professional programs.

However, according to the Council of Graduate Schools, the shrinking enrollment pipeline playing out in undergraduate programs across the U.S. may be reaching the graduate education community. Contributing factors include a strong job market, challenging political landscape, and the ongoing student debt crisis. This has led even the most sought-after graduate programs at prestigious universities to reexamine their graduate student recruitment operations. In doing so, many have discovered outdated technology, inconsistent procedures, lack of transparency, and a desperate need for modernization.

Whether your graduate program is at a big university or a small college, there are four fundamental steps to reimagine your recruitment process.

1. Get together: Communicate across your college or university.

Schools typically handle graduate and undergraduate student recruitment differently. Most have centralized undergraduate recruiting with team members from admissions, recruitment, and marketing coordinating communications, technology, and processes. Very few schools have centralized graduate student recruitment activities, and each department handles its own program. When the departments are working in silos with disparate processes and technology to track students and activities, they are more likely to duplicate efforts, increase costs, and yield inaccurate student information.

Successful graduate student recruitment programs require centralized effort and communication throughout admissions, recruitment, marketing, and the departments involved. Best practice is to use the same enrollment management software across departments with role-based access so there is one consistent record for each prospective student.

2. Get on the same page: Develop recruitment practices useful for all programs.

Faculty and staff should recruit using individual flair to differentiate their programs from the competition. Yet it is critical to create a cohesive recruitment experience for all graduate programs at your institution. If a student changes their area of interest, they shouldn’t encounter a lapse in communication or get confused by a new recruitment process.

Creating some standards for all student recruitment—certain milestones in the process—creates a consistent experience while allowing programs to shine where they are unique. Think of this as picking the same textbook. Each instructor can emphasize different chapters and make the class their own, but everyone is learning from the same book.

3. Get rid of barriers: Review your application process.

Many highly competitive graduate programs are now looking to expand their applicant pool to reach enrollment goals and maintain their competitive status. To do so, they must look deeply at their recruitment and application processes to look for any unnecessary barriers. Do you truly need all those form fields to make a strong admissions decision, or was that process put in place as a barrier to weed out applicants? What technology do you use to streamline the process for potential students?

You may also want to reexamine your marketing materials. Does your website use inclusive language and depict students of various backgrounds and ages? Is your program portrayed in a modern, compelling way, or are you using the same recruitment messaging you’ve used for over a decade? Review everything an applicant encounters when researching your program and remove barriers that may discourage qualified students from applying.

4. Get talking: Ask your students what pulled them in.

Why did your current students become and stay interested in your institution? Often, what a school thinks are the most important factors may not even make the top 5 for their student populations. Talk with your students about what stood out to them during their recruitment process and understand their decision-making. How do they define success? What led them to choose your graduate program over others? Understanding that will help you highlight those factors to other interested students.

Recruitment Reimagined

Traditionally, an institution’s reputation and its faculty’s credentials drove graduate student applications. In today’s competitive world, colleges and universities cannot rely on reputation alone and must reimagine their recruitment practices, especially within their graduate programs. Students have more options than ever, and it’s crucial for your school to stand out by having modern, inclusive, and effective recruitment practices.

These tips can help jump start your graduate recruitment practice. Success won’t happen overnight, but remember: if it’s hard work, it’s good for the student.