Graduate programmes have a lot to teach HE about enrolment

Steady increases in graduate enrolments have been one of the precious few bright spots during perhaps the most volatile period for higher education in recent memory

Toby McChesney 's avatar
Santa Clara University
21 Jan 2022
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University enrolment teams could learn a lot from the lessons of graduate programmes

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While the predicted mass closures of college campuses have yet to materialise, the financial impact and economic pressures spurred by the pandemic have brought hundreds of US colleges and universities to the brink. But the pandemic has not affected each part of academe equally: steady increases in graduate enrolments have been one of a precious few bright spots during one of the most volatile periods for higher education in recent memory.

The success of graduate education programmes during this period of enormous change may offer powerful insights into how institutions of higher education can compete and thrive in uncertain times. What can higher education learn from the success of graduate education programmes in an era of disruption and uncertainty? Here are three guiding principles – perfected in the world of graduate enrolment management – that offer clues to a sustainable higher education recovery:

Equity and sustainability: two sides of the same coin

The graduate education sector’s focus on equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) appears to be making an impact, with the largest increases occurring among Latinx students (20.4 per cent), black students (16 per cent) and American Indian/Alaska Native students (8.8 per cent).

Historically, it was tempting for institutional leaders to compartmentalise EDI concerns as just another priority to be balanced alongside others. If it wasn’t already, it’s now clear that addressing equity is at the heart of institutional sustainability in an era of increasingly diverse student demographics.

As Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, wrote recently: “Appeals for improved diversity and inclusion in higher education are often rooted in moral and political terms: We must expand access to college for under-represented groups so that they have equal opportunities to benefit from post-secondary degrees. These claims are important. Often overlooked, however, is the economic value of diversifying colleges and universities.”

At Santa Clara University, a private, non-profit Jesuit university in northern California where I serve as vice-provost for graduate programmes, we’ve seen that increasing our institution-wide focus on EDI is strengthening enrolment and financial health. Tapping into new and more diverse demographics is not only helping us fulfil our social justice mission but also helping us become a more vibrant and financially sustainable institution.

The primacy of career connections

Survey after survey continues to show that students are not only price-sensitive but also value-conscious: they expect a clear – and often immediate – return on their educational investments. In many ways, the most perplexing part of the broader enrolment challenges facing US higher education is the fact that students still have high levels of interest in pursuing a degree.

But uncertainty around the value of the degree and concerns about personal financial hardship increasingly represent derailers that can halt students in their tracks. Students are motivated to enrol at both the graduate and undergraduate level, but financial access and affordability are barriers. Institutions, in turn, are responding with a heightened degree of urgency and focus. Addressing the imperative of employability and career connection has long been a priority area of focus in graduate education.

Industry partnerships and consortial models are another approach favoured by graduate programme leaders that have helped enrolment management professionals adapt to an increasingly fast-changing landscape. Because of its location in Silicon Valley, Santa Clara University has forged new partnerships with the blue-chip technology employers in our region, which is home to iconic technology brands including Adobe, Apple, eBay and Cisco Systems.

Institutions looking for guidance on creating employer partnerships can draw inspiration from the President’s Forum – a network of 17 prominent, adult-serving colleges and universities. Earlier this year, the organisation launched a report with field-tested examples of how higher education institutions can partner with industry to grow enrolment, serve new student demographics and address labour market needs.

Hybrid enrolment strategies enhance value

One way that institutions can make their academic offerings more attractive is to embrace the growing trend of hybrid degrees and dual enrolment.

At Santa Clara, we use a graduate centralised application service, a technology platform that enables us to streamline and standardise the application process for graduate students.

Because we now have cross-cutting insight into the career and academic interests of potential students, our graduate enrolment services team has been able to recommend dual and hybrid degree programmes that offer significantly greater career and professional returns to the student.

While this trend is growing in popularity in graduate admissions and enrolment management, it is not unique to graduate programmes or one type of institution. Indeed, the economic and enrolment pressures of the pandemic are causing institutions of every type to think beyond historic labels that constrain them, finding new ways to stretch and serve more students.

For example, community colleges have become increasingly focused not just on facilitating transfer to four-year universities, but actually offering their own bachelor’s degree programmes.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, postgraduate programmes are building online graduate certificates that help students build towards an advanced degree while earning a more immediate payoff through a short-term credential. Institutions of every type are more focused on online and hybrid programmes to deliver more flexible offerings to students. These hybrid models offer powerful examples of how institutions can diversify their enrolments – and reach – to improve institutional sustainability over time.

Given the unpredictable environment around student enrolment, the practice and theory of strategic enrolment management must continue to evolve to keep up with the dramatic changes occurring throughout today’s higher education landscape.

Despite the unfair criticism they often receive as being inflexible and slow to change, institutions of higher education are also remarkably durable and resilient and have shown a knack for adaptation – even, or especially, when times are difficult. The gravity-defying changes in enrolment are just one example of how the pandemic has reshaped the higher education landscape. Enrolment management professionals must lead a shift to a more holistic way of thinking about institutional change and strategy – by embracing changes in society and the labour market, rather than fighting them.

Toby McChesney is the vice-provost for graduate programmes at Santa Clara University.

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