Higher Education Marketing Strategy

Graduate Recruitment Ideas for the Coronavirus Era

By Sean Carton \ April 1, 2020

The one unspoken and slightly ghoulish aspect of graduate admissions is that bad economic news is usually good news for graduate enrollments. When times are tough and the job market tightens up, employers can be a lot choosier about the credentials they’re looking for and workers are forced to go back to school to get a leg up on the competition. When times are good and employers are scrambling to fill a large number of jobs, requirements become more lax and job seekers are less motivated to go back for education they don’t need.

Considering that the COVID-19 pandemic is having some pretty severe economic consequences including driving lots of people onto the unemployment rolls, should graduate programs across the country look forward to a boom fall  2020 class?

Probably not.

As it stands now, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a largely negative impact on both undergraduate and graduate admissions globally. Retention is also a concern, with institutions concerned that many of their existing students may not come back at all. Hundreds of college and university campuses are closed (including most public universities) and are moving classes online until the end of the spring 2020 semester, with some indicating they may not hold in-person classes in the fall. E In those cases where campuses remain open, shelter in place and other orders restricting public gatherings are in effect, making open houses and other recruitment events impossible. 

Many admissions offices have responded quickly to the restrictions, nimbly deploying new techniques such as the increasingly-ubiquitous Zoom interviews, relying heavily on email, and, like so many of us, making do while working remotely. But is transferring what you’ve always done in person into an online format enough?

Not surprisingly, the answer to that is a big “no!”

Why? Because the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t a temporary inconvenience like a nasty weather event. This is very, very different. Not only is it global, impacting every continent except Antarctica (as of March 31 when this was written), but it’s impacting nearly every aspect of life around the world, with travel restrictions, closures of non-essential businesses, requirements to stay home, shortages of everything from healthcare to toilet paper, and a huge amount of anxiety on an unprecedented global scale. In the U.S., people are increasingly worried as infections spread and deaths grow.  It’s tough to think about next week, much less next September. 

Whether the economy necessitates it or not, going back to school for a graduate degree is a nerve-wracking experience in the best of times. Today, with the uncertainty and anxiety and fear COVID-19 has brought all of us, it’s exponentially worse for someone contemplating graduate school (and for many currently in school). 

This is the environment higher education marketers need to take into account when crafting new recruitment strategies and tactics. Prospective students worry about being able to pay for school. They worry about having to take classes online, at least for the fall semester. They worry about being able to take the tests they’re required to take for admission, although many of the testing services have been quick to find alternatives and many universities are doing away with testing entirely, at least temporarily.  Prospects worry if the schools they are considering will even exist in the fall, and current undergrads starting graduate school in the upcoming academic year worry if they’ll be able to graduate. And everyone’s anxious about getting sick and, for the most part, confined to their homes. Fun times.

The not-so-secret key to effective marketing has always been to understand your target audiences, and that hasn’t changed. To market your graduate programs effectively, you’ll need to address the new (ab)normal with some creative solutions. Here are 12 ideas for recruiting graduate students — especially students interested in professional programs — in the Coronavirus Era:

  1. Offer tuition discounts and other financial incentives for transfer students interested in your online programs, especially those students currently enrolled in formerly face-to-face programs who are struggling to make the transition.
  2. Host town hall-style webinars to answer questions from prospective students.  Include video conferencing “breakout” capabilities (such as those found in Zoom) to host “side sessions” where admissions counselors can answer specific questions and review transcripts.
  3. Offer “try before you buy” online mini-classes taught by accomplished online faculty to help those who are nervous about going to school online (or are having a lousy experience with a hastily-converted face-to-face class) get used to the idea and discover how the online experience can stand toe-to-toe with the in-person experience.
  4. Explore new revenue models such as ISAs (income share agreements) that let students pay after graduation and after they’ve gotten a job. While this may be a radical change, bootcamps and other emerging educational models have been successful doing this. Knowing that they’re not going to be required to invest a lot of money up front can alleviate many of the financial fears prospects are now facing.
  5. Offer steep discounts to attract international students to your online programs. Again, not the optimal solution, but if travel restrictions are going to be in effect for a while, this may be the only answer if you want international students. Give them the option to transition to a face-to-face program when that’s available.
  6. Reach out to local businesses and offer non-credit executive education or specific job-skill courses to laid-off and furloughed workers. Don’t pass up a potential revenue stream that could be right there in your local community.
  7. And speaking of your local community, recruit faculty to offer online consulting to local businesses or community organizations. Not only will doing so help you grow and nurture local relationships, but it might also help faculty who feel helpless in the face of the pandemic contribute meaningfully to their communities. Involve students, too, if possible. Many are losing internships as you read this.
  8. Offer discounts and other incentives to students who will commit to registering for the fall (or even summer) semester. The old saying about a bird in the hand is an old saying for a reason.
  9. Create a subscription email newsletter for prospects t that provides updates about changes in testing protocols, financial aid requirements, etc. This could be a great way to build a list.
  10. Waive application fees during the outbreak. This is a no-brainer.
  11. Hold “instant admit” online events with live admissions personnel available to answer questions, walk prospects through your application, review transcripts, talk about financial aid, etc. You could certainly combine this with #2 above.
  12. Finally, offer a guaranteed one-year deferral option for students who apply for fall 2020 admission. This could go a long way to alleviate many of their anxieties and could help build your 2021 class, too!
Sean Carton
Chief Strategist
Sean Carton
Chief Strategist

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.