More students are applying to graduate school, but it's still highly competitive, and schools need to focus on how they recruit new students.

Survey: More students want to go to graduate school

More students are applying to grad school, but it's still a highly competitive market, and schools need to focus on how they recruit new students

Key points:

Current narratives surrounding graduate school enrollment aren’t generally sunny in outlook: earning a graduate degree requires both time and money; many jobs no longer require bachelor’s degrees, let alone master’s degrees; and public confidence in higher education’s value is waning. Yet a recently published survey calls these narratives into question. The survey shows that 90 percent of respondents (ranging from college seniors to those who are four years out of college) are interested in continuing on to graduate school, and most of the students polled wanted to go back full time.

Given the widespread media attention questioning the value of college degrees, what is making students sacrifice valuable time and money to get an advanced degree?

Students want graduate degrees to help secure jobs

While it’s true that many businesses have eliminated degree requirements from their job postings and requirements, advanced degrees still carry weight with HR professionals and hiring managers. Undergraduates look at senior leaders who hold positions they aspire to have, and they often notice how many of those senior leaders hold advanced degrees.

Additionally, in uncertain times, students head to graduate school as an alternative to looking for work in a stagnant labor market. Following the massive hiring during the COVID-era, companies, particularly in tech, have begun to trim their ranks. Tech companies laid off 165,000 people in 2022 and 260,000 workers in 2023. This year, 200 tech companies have slashed more than 50,000 jobs. College students and recent grads are hearing about this every day, and they are reacting in a cyclical pattern that colleges have seen for many years. When students believe good jobs are hard to come by, they seek refuge in graduate school.

What are students looking for in graduate school?

According to the survey, 83 percent of respondents want to go back to school full time, and 56 percent of respondents are concerned about ROI. The latter is not surprising. In the face of persistent questioning about whether college degrees are worth it, students want to know if the money they borrow to get an advanced degree will also advance them in their careers.

The stagnant job market is also behind the desire to attend grad school full time. Students who think they’ll find work in their chosen fields will often choose to enroll in graduate school part time. That 83 percent of respondents want to attend graduate school full time—a marked increase from two years ago when only 68 percent reported wanting to go full time—suggests that students would like to wait until the job market is stronger before joining the workforce.

Students (56 percent in 2024 vs. 37 percent in 2022) were also looking for an on-campus experience to help drive professional networking opportunities, one of their deciding factors for attending graduate schools. Most students want to be on campus to interact with their peers and professors.

Takeaways for schools looking to recruit graduate students

More students are applying to grad school, and schools should see a continued uptick in enrollments. But it’s still a highly competitive market, and schools need to focus on how they recruit new students.

Here are some steps to take to increase enrollment:

  • Market to prospective graduate students via online channels such as Google and LinkedIn, the preferred digital channels for that demographic: 65 percent of respondents identified Google as the most influential digital channel, followed closely by LinkedIn at 56 percent.
  • Improve website content. Higher education institutions should focus on developing targeted landing pages to ensure visitors have a smooth digital journey.
  • On the website and in marketing content, messages that contain direct ROI and highlight scholarship opportunities are more likely to resonate with the intended audience. The number of companies that provide tuition reimbursement has steadily declined and currently rests at 20 percent. Therefore, students need greater financial support.
  • Stress flexibility in course delivery on websites and in marketing materials.  Although most students (56 percent) want to take their classes on campus, many are looking for hybrid and online options.  

Taking advantage of the current climate

Many U.S. graduate schools have seen enrollment from domestic students drop in the post-COVID economic boom. The survey, however, should give them reason for optimism. To take advantage of this moment, and to drive interest in programs, institutions need to invest in marketing. Focusing on ROI and program flexibility in particular, as well as identifying what differentiates your program from others will drive more interest, applications and, subsequently, more enrollments.

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