"Buying In" to Graduate School Student Recruitment
How Cultivating Self-Interests and Financial Incentives Can Stimulate Enrollment
By William Ihlanfeldt

From the May 2002 AAHE Bulletin


Who is responsible for recruiting graduate and professional school students on your campus? At many universities, the answer is unclear and the financial consequences can be profound. This lack of clarity and accountability often results in poor communication with prospective students and enrollment shortfalls.

Typically, at many universities, the dean of the graduate school has assumed the responsibility for coordinating the recruitment of master’s and doctoral students in arts and sciences and for doctoral students in the graduate-professional schools. It is assumed that the chairs of the respective departments will be responsible for the active recruitment of students and that the Office of the Dean of the graduate school will process applications and provide some financial support. The total effort for the recruitment of master candidates for the professional schools is viewed as the responsibility of the professional schools.

But, as personnel change in the graduate and professional schools and new deans and department chairs assume their duties, these lines of responsibility often become blurred. New deans and department chairs usually rise from the faculty. They, generally, do not have enrollment-management experience and there is no clear organizational structure with assigned responsibilities emanating from central administration.

I discovered just such a lack of organizational clarity and responsibility recently when I agreed to a consulting assignment reviewing the recruitment of graduate and professional school students at a major university. What I found was that the deans of most of the university’s graduate-professional schools had assumed that the graduate school was responsible for student recruitment and the processing of applications, even though the dean of the graduate school did not view student recruitment as his responsibility. The Office of the Graduate School was willing to process applications but was not willing to engage prospective students.

Neither the professional schools nor the graduate school was staffed properly to recruit students because, historically, prospective student interest was relatively high and students would stumble through the process and arrive on campus. The printing of applications and promotional material by the graduate school was often delayed or deferred, application fees and tuition deposits were frequently waived by the graduate school, and students often arrived for registration without any financial resources.

Interestingly, even under these circumstances, which had persisted for several years, this university had respectable enrollments in many of its professional and graduate school departments. However, the trend was downward in terms of numbers, quality, and domestic students. The situation clearly lacked accountability. Lines of responsibility were not clear, and the response by central administration was to monitor expenditures and insist on cutting costs to meet budgetary goals.

I assessed the situation as bleak, with the exception of two of the professional schools that had developed and financed their own recruiting programs. What had to be done was to capture the strengths of the undergraduate recruiting organization and to build a parallel model, with appropriate modifications, for recruiting graduate students. I decided that the two concepts that would be key to successfully restructuring the recruitment efforts would be emphasizing unit self-interests and creating financial incentives.

The following model captures the essence of these two concepts, which could be applied to the management of any complex university.

A Marketing Model
Although marketing principles have been applied to undergraduate education for almost 30 years, and much has been written about recruiting students for postsecondary school programs, those in graduate and professional education have not viewed with the same degree of urgency the adoption of a marketing-oriented approach to student recruitment. When enrollment shortfalls occur in graduate and professional-graduate education, costs are sometimes reduced or central administration absorbs the losses, and pressures to increase undergraduate enrollments result.

But there is no one organizational model that higher education has adopted to address enrollment-management issues at the graduate and professional school level. Whether the dean of the graduate school, the dean of a professional school, or the chair of a department is assigned this responsibility often is a result of institutional politics and individual personalities. The assignment is made based upon assumed budgetary consequences unrelated to who or what offices have marketing and enrollment-management experience.

The goal here is to recommend an organizational structure that will be efficient and productive based upon unit self-interests and financial incentives. The basic objectives are:

  1. Develop an integrated, student-centered marketing organization for the university.

  2. Delineate clear lines of responsibility and accountability among schools and departments.  

  3. Reward schools and departments for meeting and exceeding enrollment goals.  

  4. Increase tuition revenues and control expenditures.  

  5. Expand enrollments and improve student quality.  

  6. Create greater program, school, and university visibility.

In this model, the graduate school, with the exception of the doctorate and master’s programs in arts and sciences (more about these later), is removed from recruiting students and processing applications. The role of the dean of graduate education is to be an advocate for quality graduate education with responsibility for departmental program review; to develop interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs and course and program certification; and to allocate student aid for fellowships and teaching assistantships.

Recruiting arts and sciences graduate students should be the domain of the individual departments, with the graduate school assuming the role of processing applications and monitoring department recruiting efforts.

Enrollment/tuition goals should be set for each department, with financial incentives and penalties as necessary. Programs should not be sustained and permitted to evolve through accretion.

Recruiting Professional School Students
Not infrequently, during the budgeting process the dean of a professional school is given an enrollment/tuition equivalent number that is to be achieved as part of the budgeting process. However, if the tuition number is not achieved, one of three things happens: (1) the dean cuts expenditures and/or raises more money; (2) a budget shortfall occurs and the deficit is absorbed elsewhere by the administration; or (3) the following year a new program is proposed that is perceived to be more market-sensitive, often without a necessary reduction or elimination of an existing program that has limited student demand.

A more desirable model is one in which a plan is developed by the dean and the faculty as part of a bottom-up strategy that should be more market-sensitive — not unlike zero-based budgeting. Enrollment/tuition numbers should be derived and mutually agreed upon with central administration. Tuition revenues that exceed budget expectations should be shared disproportionately with the school or department where the enrollment increases have occurred and costs have remained constant, as long as student quality is maintained. Should a school or department meet its enrollment number, 70 to 90 percent of the tuition revenues generated by additional students should flow back to the respective school or department. In this model, the school has a vested interest, since it designed the program, and financial incentives to maintain and increase enrollments.

Critical to this process, however, is that each professional school develops its own marketing plan and student-recruitment operation. Each school at the graduate level would manage its own admission operation and would be held accountable for program development, student recruitment, net tuition revenues, and student satisfaction. This requires a school to be market-sensitive in all aspects of its professional training, with the reward being greater control over its own destiny, increases in tuition revenues, greater visibility, and more financial support from external sources.

To enhance this effort, the professional school should have an advisory board representing successful professionals and alumni. Members of these boards can provide access to effective networks for recruiting students, program development, and fundraising. One caveat: A board should not be created if the school is not going to be responsive to its recommendations, particularly relating to the “four Ps” of marketing: product, promotion, price, and place (location).

The Role of Central Administration  
Support from the top is key to making this incentive model work. The program must have a president and provost who are willing to appoint aggressive deans, to hold them accountable, and to provide them with the necessary administrative support.

This leads to a central organizational structure with a seasoned vice president for enrollment management coordinating the student recruitment and tuition revenue plans for all the schools. This person should be an expert in marketing, student recruitment, and price discounting (financial aid), and should be a resource to each professional and graduate school admission department in developing marketing plans and in meeting their enrollment and tuition goals.

The president and the provost must make it clear that although each school is responsible for meeting agreed-upon enrollment/tuition goals, the vice president for enrollment management will have oversight responsibility for the admission and student-aid operations within each school. To further empower this structure, the vice president for enrollment management should be responsible for the allocation of financial aid for all master’s programs, including the graduate school.

To support and enhance this administration model, two infrastructure components must be developed: (1) an integrated student database, and (2) an integrated accounting system that tracks enrollments and the allocation of financial aid across programs within each school. Such a system should include the ability to identify all income and expenditures by degrees.

The development of such a marketing-oriented organization promotes a bottom-up planning strategy producing unit self-interests, financial rewards, budgetary tracking, and administrative control. It’s a win-win situation. And for graduate and professional schools, where the student recruiting lines of responsibility are often unclear, the implementation of such a model will streamline the communication process for prospective students, impose accountability, and increase tuition revenues.

William Ihlanfeldt is the former vice president for institutional relations and dean of admission, financial aid, and student records at Northwestern University. Contact him at williami@core.com.

Copyright © 2008 - American Association for Higher Education and Accreditation