Graduate student admission is a complex topic in higher education. Competition for graduate students is high, with thousands of accredited institutions in the United States alone and online alternatives increasingly dominating the ad space as well.

Making it more complex are the nuances brought on by the various audiences that most colleges and universities serve. Traditional, high-school-aged undergraduate students are still the main draw, but becoming less dominant. College enrollment is largely declining because high school graduation rates are following the same trends.

Colleges are branching out, particularly into the adult student audiences. That’s especially true in graduate admissions, which is looking to serve anyone from third-career doctoral students to college seniors not looking to join the job market quite yet.

Who you attract to your university matters in the way you build your online presence, from your website to your digital map and virtual tour. The needs and reasons to attend your university differ between undergraduate and graduate. They even change significantly within the graduate student segment. Only a full understanding of these differences can allow you to build comprehensive admissions strategies designed to maintain and even increase enrollment for graduate students.

Let’s dig deeper into that topic. We’ll start with some quick facts about the modern graduate school environment, before diving into the audience nuances that higher ed professionals looking to recruit graduate students have to be aware of.

Graduate School

4 Quick Facts About the State of Admissions for Graduate Students

  1. Graduate enrollments are increasing. In fact, it’s the one growing enrollment segment for most universities, and it’s likely to increase even more in light of the difficult employment market created by COVID-19.
  2. Graduate degrees have a significant (and increasing) effect on earnings potential. The average master’s or doctoral graduate can earn up to $1 million more during their career.
  3. Microcredentials are on the rise. Rather than looking for traditional degree programs, increasing numbers of students are expecting short certificates and training that look good on a resume and drive specific skills building.
  4. Grad school decisions are more practical. Decisions on where to attend tend to be less focused on-campus atmosphere or the ‘feeling’ of the university, and more on the value of specific programs for specific situations.

Add these trends together, and you get a good idea of just how graduate admissions differs from undergrad. Of course, that’s only the beginning. Graduate admissions professionals also have to contend with the fact that the audience is not uniform — far from it.

3 Types of Graduate Students for the Modern Admissions Professional

Every university, just like every business, can break down its target audience into specific segments. But these segments are much more pronounced and differentiated on the graduate level.

lecture hall full of student chairs

Consider three typical audience segments that any university offering any type of post-baccalaureate program will likely attract:

  1. The full-time student, deciding to go straight from their bachelor’s degree into an advanced program before they enter the workforce. They’re in their early 20s and have likely never worked full-time.
  2. The part-time professional, looking to grad school as a way to enhance their career credentials. They may have hit a ceiling at their job and need an advanced degree or certificate for a promotion, or simply consider the long-term effects of that credential on their career.
  3. The second-career student, looking to switch it up and use their advanced studies as a way to chart a new path. They may study full- or part-time but tend to have more urgent motivations than either of the two groups above.

If your institution grants doctoral degrees, a fourth group and perhaps more may enter the fray. And unlike undergrad, enrollment is not dominated by any one of them. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, graduate school enrollment in 2018 was 57% full-time and 43% part-time.

5 Core Motivations for Students to Attend Graduate School

Pull together current trends and typical audience segments, and you begin to see the connections. Across potential students, five reasons clearly emerge for students to study for their advanced degree or credential.

1. Career Potential Through Increased Competitiveness

Increased credentials are never a bad thing. Especially as more specialized jobs tend to require an advanced degree, with the same often true for upper management. In total, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16% of all jobs require at least a master’s degree.

Let’s face it: even if the job doesn’t require it, that credential does look good on a resume. That’s the primary motivation for countless graduate students across the nation enrolling in advanced programs.

2. Increased Earning Potential

We already touched on this above, but it’s important to mention as a decision factor: attaining more education will lead to higher earnings. Median earnings jump up by almost $300 from bachelor’s to master’s degree, and another $250 to a doctoral degree. That coincides with lower unemployment rates at higher educational levels to significantly increase earning potential.

It’s important to recognize that for many of your potential graduate students, the prospect of higher earnings is the primary motivation. That, in turn, puts the onus on messaging that is driven by return on investment and educational value as well as successful outcomes for recent grads.

3. Personal Fulfillment

On the other end of the spectrum, a not-insignificant amount of students earn their graduate degree simply because they feel called to do it. That motivation may manifest itself in any number of ways:

  • Using education and the skills earned as an outlet for personal hobbies and passions
  • Looking to make an impact on the world by learning new research and publishing techniques
  • Making connections with other graduate students interested in the same subjects
  • And much more.

This group will not be near as convinced by ROI-based messaging as those looking for a career or earning enhancement. Instead, students tend to respond well to messages of transformation, community, and mentorship.

4. Finding Alternatives to Challenging Economic Times

The COVID-19 pandemic is in the process of reshaping the economy as we know it. Thirty million Americans filed for unemployment in the past six weeks, while a recent congressional forecast predicted nearly 10% unemployment by the end of next year.

We don’t know the potential impact of that economic earthquake. But we do know that last time the unemployment quote spiked this much, during the Great Recession of the late 2000s, potential students flocked to graduate school. Scared off by the economy, especially graduating college seniors decided to enhance their credentials instead of trying to compete in a tough labor market with more experienced professionals.

That may well be the case again. Universities are already shifting their messages accordingly, providing an alternative through grad school for those afraid of or negatively affected by high unemployment.

5. Professional and Academic Recognition

Finally, it’s important not to underestimate the segment of students who look to graduate school and earning an advanced degree for their reputation. This may include a full-time professor earning a second doctorate degree, or a c-suite executive getting that Business Ph.D.

In this case, the credentials matter, but not for direct career improvement. Instead, they help to put weight behind the name and reputation of the students in question, increasing their influence more indirectly as a result.

Digital map wayfinding

How Digital Map Software Can Help You Attract Graduate Students

All of the above, of course, should play a major role in your graduate admissions strategy and implementation. That begins with focusing your efforts and budget on those segments of your audience that are a good fit for your programs; if, for instance, a program is offered full-time or during the day, you likely won’t get many part-time professionals regardless of your marketing message.

If you’re an admissions marketer looking to boost application inquiries, discover the game-changing impact of interactive campus maps in our blog post, ‘Interactive Campus Maps: A Powerful Admissions Tool‘.

Beyond the targeting, focusing on the right content to present your students is vital. And that’s where digital mapping and map software enters the equation.

Graduate Students are More Sophisticated Applicants

Potential graduate students are a more sophisticated audience than their undergraduate equivalents. They know how to perform research, and are looking for very specific points in potential schools that fit their exact needs. As mentioned above, they tend to be more rational and will look closely at detailed information sources.

In other words, a picture of a few smiling students under a tree in your students’ favorite hangout spots simply won’t work. Instead, you need more details, such as a digital map that provides exact information about the types of resources your university can provide. Do you have a comprehensive library? What about research labs, or after-hour support for working professionals who are only on campus in the evening?

The right digital map can accommodate these needs and more. In addition to showing the full campus, it allows you to provide the exact details your potential students are looking for. You can even integrate virtual tours focused on individual audience segments and the decision factors you’ve found to be important for these segments.

You just need the right partner. That’s where we come in. Concept3D has worked with universities and graduate institutions across the country to provide comprehensive digital experiences through its digital map software.