The traditional work of strategic enrollment management (SEM) has long focused on undergraduate recruitment, admission, enrollment, retention and graduation. A strategic approach to the recruitment and enrollment of graduate students is the exception, not the rule. Most enrollment managers are responsible only for undergraduate enrollment. And happily so—undergraduate enrollment management is exciting. It gives us the opportunity to forge relationships with high school counselors, travel to interesting places, demonstrate our commitment to access, create programs to enhance the diversity of our institutions and more. Graduate programs have traditionally been the purview of the faculty. Whether students are sought for professional masters programs or for Ph.D. programs, it is the faculty who typically recruits and admits graduate students. So what can SEM offer in the area of graduate programs? Plenty!
Universities have strong incentives to target graduate education for SEM. First and foremost, university reputations are built (and enhanced) in large measure on the strength and quality of graduate programs. The National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies, which also includes the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, assesses doctorate-granting and research institutions on a periodic basis. Operating under a congressional charter, the NRC and the National Academies bring together experts in all areas of science and technology to serve pro bono, addressing critical national issues and advising the federal government and the public. Placing highly in the NRC rankings brings an institution attention from both peers and funding agencies. For many universities, federal funding provides financial resources to support both scholarly research and entrepreneurship.
Another important institutional incentive is that revenues from professional masters programs may account for a nontrivial amount of institutional budgets. Teacher training programs can support institutional objectives in the area of community outreach. Executive education can provide avenues for the development of corporate partnerships, providing new revenue streams, often in a cohort or negotiated fee structure model. And, executive or continuing education can be delivered in a variety of modes: on campus, off campus and via distance learning. Given the fact that most of us will have four to six different careers during our lifetimes, universities can provide both the skills support and intellectual challenge that focuses on a specific industry or profession.
However, the structure and execution of graduate enrollment activities varies widely from institution to institution. Graduate admissions may report to the dean of the graduate school, with recruitment centralized or decentralized. Graduate admissions may be the responsibility of the chief enrollment officer through the enrollment management structure. Individual departments and academic units may be responsible for all recruitment and admissions activities. Regardless of the structure, the admissions process at the graduate level is more complex than at the undergraduate level, in large part because of the number of institutional actors involved. Graduate admissions decisions are typically (but not always) made by faculty. In virtually all cases they are important partners in the process. Effective SEM at the graduate level requires a partnership between academic units, faculty, the graduate school and the senior academic leadership of the institution. If there is a separate graduate admissions function, this area is a necessary partner as well.
Whether an institution offers a few or many graduate programs, there are organizations devoted to supporting graduate admissions, such as the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals and NAFSA: Association of International Educators, both of which provide excellent training and networking venues for graduate admissions professionals. The American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), through the Strategic Enrollment Management conference, also provides similar opportunities. Finally, although designed primarily to support graduate deans, the Council of Graduate Schools is the only national organization dedicated to the advancement of graduate education and research and is a great resource for graduate admissions professionals.
However, without a service-oriented enrollment management focus, graduate admissions activities can hurt, rather than help, an institution’s reputation both in the public arena and within the university community. We have applied SEM to graduate enrollment at the University of Southern California for the past two years. As a result, service to applicants and our academic departments has improved exponentially. And we have seen a more than 23 percent increase in graduate applications in the past year. This article uses the USC experience as a case study for SEM at the graduate level.
The University of Southern California is made up of 17 academic units, including the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences as well as professional and arts schools. Throughout the 1990s, USC focused intently on improving the quality and reputation of undergraduate programs. Curricular innovation, SEM and brilliant marketing coalesced to increase average SAT score more than 300 points from 1991 to 2006.
Also an excellent graduate institution, USC looks to the academic units, and the faculty within those academic units, to attract high quality students to its many graduate programs. Within the university’s 17 academic units are 90 departments and 400 masters, doctoral and certificate programs. The University of Southern California enrolls more than 16,000 graduate students in professional masters programs and Ph.D. programs. More than 25,000 graduate applications are received annually. Eighty percent of those applications are for the fall term. One-third of the applicants are international students, from more than 100 countries. Admissions processing scans more than a total of 1.5 million documents each year for undergraduate and graduate applicants. Application deadlines range from mid-November to mid-July. Although the graduate school at USC is responsible for the administrative oversight of graduate education, the graduate school is not responsible for enrollment management or application processing.
In contrast with the undergraduate admissions process, graduate recruitment and admission is quite decentralized. Each academic unit employs staff to manage the admissions process for programs offered within the various schools and recruits directly for its own programs (if time and money permit). Often the same staff person acts as an adviser for currently enrolled students. There is limited central staff to support a complex program-by-program review process. Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) personnel are also housed in graduate admissions (a natural fit considering most of the international enrollment at USC is in the graduate programs).
In 2002, the Enrollment Services Division commissioned a graduate admissions process review. Key findings included:
- Wide variation in application and admissions protocol across academic units and departments, with variable application deadlines, variable application fees and inconsistent application data
- Lack of timely application processing by central graduate admissions
- Inaccurate and untimely processing of I20 forms, used by international students to obtain a student visa
- Poor communication between central graduate admissions and academic units and departments
Although the university was committed to a centralized application review process, the existing central graduate admissions function was so broken that some departments had created shadow systems and had told applicants not to send anything to central admissions! In 2005 the provost instructed the dean of admissions and financial aid to “get the train back on the tracks.”
Put simply, our challenge was to create an integrated graduate admissions and enrollment function that served the needs of the graduate programs and departments across the university more effectively and efficiently than they could serve themselves. At the most basic level, we needed to review applications in a timely manner and refer them to departments for final admissions decision.
To accomplish this, it was important to consider the following: Does SEM make sense at the graduate level? Whom would it most benefit? What do we need to do to apply SEM to our current graduate enrollment practices? How long would it take to make SEM a reality?
Phase I: Getting the Basics Right
Our first step was to focus on improving core activities. We began by rationalizing the number and type of staff in graduate admissions. Most importantly, USC created the position of associate dean and director of graduate admission. In addition, the budget for professional staff in graduate admissions was increased by 50 percent. Then we began thinking of our work as a unified system encompassing recruitment, admission, enrollment and advising. We collaborated with academic units and departments to set service expectations. We determined the best way to communicate with prospective students—moving from a totally paper-based system to virtually 100 percent electronic communication. And, importantly, we committed to the reality that we have many customers: prospective students, applicants, faculty and administrators. A systems focus required us to think holistically about the enrollment process. The decentralized nature of the university could have discouraged this line of thinking, but we had a champion in the provost, who set a very public expectation for the success of graduate admissions.
In the “old” graduate admissions structure there was no real “team leader,” nor did the staff have specific areas of responsibility. Staff turnover was high and morale was low. We hired and trained additional evaluators, and we hired an experienced SEVIS coordinator. (The work of the credential evaluator can be tedious but it must be precise.) We created a team leader and gave staff specific areas of responsibility. This has paid off in many ways. The evaluators have access to a robust resource library that is constantly updated to reflect the most current information on colleges and universities around the world. The admissions staff feel more in control of their work because they play a big part in training their colleagues in the schools and departments. Having a front line manager who is also an experienced evaluator gives everyone a sense of security—there’s always someone to go to for advice and someone to speak for them.
As experienced enrollment managers we assumed that this approach would work, and we were able to communicate with our colleagues in the schools and departments in language that they understood. USC is fortunate (in relative terms) to have a proprietary data management system that is fairly user-friendly, allowing both central and academic unit–based admissions staff to monitor activity with applicants. The sharing of data was essential to making the system work for everyone.
Because USC has the largest international enrollment of any university in the United States (more than 6,000 international students for fall 2006), we issued more than 3,500 I20s for spring, summer and fall terms for graduate and undergraduate students. The integration of the admissions function and I20 processing is essential to enrolling this number of students so that the evaluators can review financial documentation along with academic credentials. This allows students to be informed early in the process if their financial documentation is not adequate. Cross-training the staff supports better communication with students; it results in the SEVIS coordinator being easily able to relay information to applicants about missing credentials.
By reaching out to key influencers in the schools and departments, we are able to test anticipated changes in processing and get immediate feedback on workflow issues. We have established a graduate enrollment council (GEC), whose membership includes representatives from across the academic units. The GEC meets monthly to discuss issues and initiatives related to graduate admissions. As an example, they are currently serving as a resource to the university information services unit in the development of a new data warehouse.
One of the biggest hurdles to overcome was the impression of graduate admissions as “gatekeepers.” We have overcome this perception by asking departments to provide us with information on their work processes. This has enabled us to provide support to departments when they need it. We charted application deadlines and faculty review cycles so that the file review would queue up based on what the departments needed to make admissions decisions.
Finally, we focused on service, service, service and more service. We redeployed one of the evaluators to manage all electronic communication, including e-mail and Web. He uses student staff to help answer the thousands of e-mails we receive annually, about 40 percent of which are from students checking on the status of their applications. We even stopped mailing missing credential letters to international students, because so often the letter either never arrived or arrived weeks after the credential was received, and started e-mailing them instead.
Phase II: Using Technology
The next step was to add value to the process by leveraging technology. This meant redesigning the graduate admissions Web site and implementing an online graduate admissions system. The Web site was redesigned to be more informative and add usable links to the schools and departments. Whether prospective students started at the graduate admissions site or in a department Web site, they would be pointed in the right direction when it was time to apply. When the graduate admissions Web site was updated, we reviewed the Web sites for all the departments and programs with whom we work to ensure that the links were working properly. We also wanted to eliminate any contradictory information and ensure that students had correct (and the same) information regarding the admissions process, regardless of the source. We are also committed to building strategic capabilities to enhance our work processes.
The biggest impact on the application process has come with the implementation of a new online application hosted by AY Solutions. In slightly more than 90 days we hired a project manager and brought the basic university graduate application online. Sixty days after that implementation we launched a unique version of the application for USC’s Marshall School of Business. In addition to providing a much more user-friendly application process for students, we provided the opportunity for the schools and departments to view applications as soon as they are submitted, rather than having them wait to view the applications in the student information system. Departments also receive supplemental materials immediately upon submission, as attachments to the application itself. Recommendations can be submitted electronically or uploaded as attachments. By implementing this process we have reduced the time it takes to input and scan an application from between two and three weeks to between two and three days, and we are now able to review files and electronically send them to departments for admission decisions within a few days. And the review process is based on when the departments want to see the files!
To keep everyone informed, we have quarterly meetings with graduate advisers from both campuses (the health- and medical-related programs are housed at the USC Health Sciences campus, about six miles from the University Park campus). Each meeting has a topical focus and provides an opportunity for staff to communicate about issues and concerns. Because many of the graduate advisers work within their home departments they don’t have an opportunity to network with the other graduate advisers, so these meetings have proven quite popular and are well attended. Recent discussion topics have included the impact of the Bologna Agreement on admissions review and also how to better coordinate admitted student programs across campus. Prompted by a speaker at an AACRAO SEM conference, we also had a faculty member in the Annenberg School of Communication discuss the impact of social networking Web sites on the admissions process. The next step is to create an extranet platform to support communication between graduate staff across all five Los Angles campuses and three extension offices, and we expect to have that in place by summer 2007.
Phase III: Developing New Strategic Capabilities
USC is a revenue center–managed institution. All graduate revenue generated within an academic unit stays within the unit, and this system encourages a strong entrepreneurial spirit in the schools and departments. That said, many of our colleagues on campus have welcomed the opportunity to work collaboratively on recruitment and outreach. We are supporting new initiatives for departments so they can extend their reach without overtaxing existing budgets. We have actively promoted a more coordinated approach to international recruitment and are also developing resources for improving minority recruitment. As an example, we will fund new Graduate Record Examinations search initiatives for departments that would like to “test the waters” in new markets. We are also working with the McNair Scholars Program on campus to develop outreach opportunities to McNair programs on other campuses. And in spring 2007 we will travel to Asia with colleagues from several of the professional schools as well as the alumni office—a first in terms of collaborative outreach on the graduate level.
In addition to providing ongoing training on the interface of the online application and the student information system, we are also phasing in two additional tools that support this system. The prospect and event management module will allow schools and departments to manage their inquiry flow at the desktop, including communication and event planning. We are also developing a status check system so that a student will know at any time what is missing from his or her file. Both of these tools will be available in spring 2007 for the 2008 recruitment cycle.
By serving both as systems support and as an expert resource for our colleagues in the schools and departments, we are creating a win-win situation for the university and the student. Students are served more quickly, and even if they don’t end up enrolling at USC, the positive experience they will have had will serve us well as an institution moving forward.
Report Card on Year 1
It’s always flattering to receive compliments when things go right. But the true measure of success in this endeavor has been in what is not said—graduate admissions is no longer viewed as dysfunctional, unfriendly or an impediment to enrollment.
We have accomplished a great deal since this plan was first implemented in December 2005. We implemented an electronic communication plan to facilitate speedier file completion and adjusted the file review process to meet departmental admissions review cycles. From the time the student is admitted, we guarantee a two-week delivery time for new I20s. We have many new friends on campus—being open and adaptable has made a huge difference in how we are received.
So what’s next? We will continue to work with departments and programs to develop outreach and recruitment strategies that enable the enrollment of more talented students. We will also provide the departments and programs access to data to evaluate the success of these strategies. Because international enrollment is so important to USC, we will work with the graduate school to establish more uniform standards for accepting three-year degrees from countries and institutions that are part of the Bologna Agreement. We will also support international outreach by convening a university-wide work group on a regular basis for planning and assessment purposes. And we will continue focusing on SEM as a way of life for graduate admissions at USC!
By: Susan Grogan Ikerd and L. Katharine Harrington
Susan Grogan Ikerd is associate dean and director of graduate admission at the University of Southern California. Los Angeles.
L. Katharine Harrington is dean of admission and financial aid at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.