How colleges and universities are working to bridge the gap between undergraduate and graduate programs
DECEMBER 1, 2020 — When Common App CEO Jenny Rickard, Ph.D., looks at the latest undergraduate enrollment numbers, her thoughts turn to the challenges that today’s trends are likely to create for graduate recruitment and enrollment in the years ahead.
As of November, she said, the number of students filing the Common App was down 8% compared with 2019. Applications from first-generation and fee-waiver eligible students declined by 16%.
“The undergraduate-to-graduate connection is critical, particularly when we think about what’s happening today,” Dr. Rickard said. “How do we help our society educate more students who can fill the jobs we so desperately need in the workforce? It takes collaboration.”
Retain now, enroll after graduation
In that spirit of collaboration, Dr. Rickard recently spoke with several admissions professionals from programs across the country about building stronger pipelines between their undergraduate and graduate programs in order to boost retention and drive enrollment.
“There’s a declining population of traditional age students in the pipeline. We were already seeing a decline in international enrollment even before the pandemic, and it’s only gotten worse,” Dr. Rickard said. “Right now, it’s really important to look closely at recruiting and retention as we move forward so that we can get undergraduates interested in continuing their education and enrolling in graduate programs.”
Of course, many graduate programs are already seeing a spike in interest: Nationwide, graduate enrollment was up 2.9% this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
“More meaningful contact”
“We’ve seen a significant uptick in the number of inquiries that our undergrads are sending out to our graduate programs,” said Kelly Lootz, Recruitment & Outreach Manager at University of the Pacific. “I think there’s a huge opportunity for us to capitalize on keeping our undergraduate students around for our graduate programs by using an intentional communication strategy to make sure they take that next step and apply to our program. Students need more engagement, and they are looking for more meaningful contact.”
At the City University of New York (CUNY), the “Pipeline Program” fosters that type of engagement by providing educational and financial support to underrepresented minorities who are interested in pursuing a PhD.
“It’s a year-long program that’s based at the CUNY Graduate Center and operates in conjunction with the central office at CUNY,” said Director of Graduate Recruitment Sonja Prophete. “It prepares students for research and doctoral work, walks them through the graduate admissions process and provides intensive GRE preparation. The peer mentors who guide students through the process are all underrepresented doctoral students who are currently enrolled at the Graduate Center. They can answer any questions students may have and help them both personally and professionally.”
At other institutions, including Missouri State University, the COVID-19 pandemic has created unique new opportunities to reach out to undergrads about the benefits of enrolling in grad school.
“Because of COVID, many of our NCAA athletes now have additional semesters or years of eligibility,” said Julie Masterson, Ph.D., Associate Provost and Dean of the Graduate College. “So we have really made a concentrated effort to reach out to our athletes to talk about pathways into graduate education. Some of these athletes are very strong students who wanted to do a graduate degree from the beginning. Others came here to compete and get their undergraduate degree. We’ve identified pathways to graduate education for both types of student, and we’re really excited about that.”
“One of the things I really appreciate about Liaison’s Centralized Application Services, such as GradCASTM, is that students aren’t starting with a blank piece of paper.”
Dr. Masterson and her colleagues are also thinking about other ways to start engaging with undergraduate students now in order to prepare them for standing out in the grad school applicant pipeline when the time comes.
“One of the things I really appreciate about Liaison’s Centralized Application Services, such as GradCASTM, is that students aren’t starting with a blank piece of paper,” she said. “There are very specific questions to guide the students through the application process. I think we need to do a better job of introducing freshman and sophomores to these applications so they know what’s going to be expected of them in a graduate school application and so they have plenty of time to prepare.”