The Challenge of Recruiting the Best
Lynne Goodstein, Former Associate Dean of the Graduate School
Aside from recruiting top faculty, the most important method for insuring quality graduate programs is recruiting excellent students. The challenge of recruiting high quality students has intensified in recent years due to a number of factors. Penn State's joining the Big 10 not only signifies our desire to compete with other major universities' sports teams; it is also a statement that Penn State intends to compete academically with institutions of the highest quality nationally. Succeeding in attracting top students to choose Penn State over other highly prestigious research universities requires hard work during the recruitment stage, along with attractive financial aid packages.
We are taking on this challenge in a time of a significantly decreasing applicant pool. National figures indicate that the number of students applying for admission to some graduate schools has declined by as much as 15 percent over the past several years. There are several reasons for the stagnation in graduate enrollments nationally. Demographics play a role. The rapid growth of graduate education in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with the baby boom generation coming of age; declines in the population of 25 to 34 year-olds has resulted in a smaller number of potential candidates for graduate study. Another factor is the strong national economy. When students with bachelor's degrees in certain fields are offered starting salaries of $60,000 or more, it is easy to understand why certain graduate programs may be encountering difficulties in attracting these individuals into graduate study. In some fields, the humanities in particular, some students may be scared off from graduate study after reading reports of the difficulties some new Ph.D.s are encountering in securing employment following graduation. Finally, the number of international students coming to the U.S. for graduate studies is showing signs of decline, reversing a pattern of steady growth over the post-World War II period.
These changes in the external environment for graduate education will result in increased competition for the best domestic and international graduate students. This competition is already evident in graduate student recruitment. Prospective graduate students are increasingly sophisticated in their graduate school choice processes. They expect to visit campuses and programs. They consult programs' and universities' websites. They carefully weight alternative financial aid offers that now customarily include multi-year offers, summer support, and other forms of top-ups and recognition.
It is no longer sufficient for graduate programs simply to wait for applications in January and February and then select the best candidates of the lot for spots in the incoming class. Programs must actively recruit the students they desire-students must be targeted and targeted students sold on the value of coming to Penn State over other institutions. Programs must assume that any student they would be interested in having in their class is probably also being recruited by other top universities. Those responsible for recruitment must ask the questions, "What can we do to distinguish our program from others? How can we make our prospective students feel comfortable and welcome at Penn State? How can we put together funding packages that will be competitive?
To be successful in recruiting the best students in this increasingly competitive marketplace, programs will wish to partner with their college deans' offices and utilize special Quality Enhancement funding from the Graduate School, if available, to implement some of these successful strategies. Remember that quality of students is reflected in both quantitative excellence and diversity.
- Fund competitively. When possible, it is advisable to offer multi-year packages. Consider "top-up" funding to increase support above normal assistantship levels and other incentives for especially attractive students.
- Spread the word. Host receptions for prospective students at national conferences; encourage researchers to recruit as part of scholarly trips, network with colleagues nationally about your program; conduct recruiting trips.
- Invite prospects to campus. Many programs have been successful in increasing their yield rate (offers/accepts) by inviting prospective students, individually or in groups, to make campus visits. Of 1998 applicants offered admission by the College of the Liberal Arts, prospective students brought to campus were significantly more likely to enroll (66%) than similar students who did not visit (40%). The College of Engineering plans a recruitment weekend, with organized activities, tours of facilities, interactive panels, and social events.
- Promote the program. Even in the electronic age, some programs are represented well through print advertising media. Brochures, posters, and conventional mailing lists are still used by many programs, especially in the arts and communications, to spread the word. Insure that material is current; update often.
- Don't neglect your website. Increasingly, prospective students are learning about your program via its website. Make sure it is communicating what you want it to about your program, has links to your faculty, department and the Grad School, and is updated regularly.
- Consider other electronic recruiting media. Some programs/colleges have developed other creative electronic recruiting tools. The College of Communications has an interactive CD-ROM recruitment tool that allows prospective applicants to engage in an interactive review of the College's graduate programs by selectively activating voices and pictures of faculty and grad students.
- Consider the offer to accept ratio. To get the same number of students enrolling, your program may need to make more offers. If you made two offers to every one student accepting, you may now need to make three.
- Assess to see what works. Keep records to assess the effectiveness the various strategies you use. Determine which ones result in the highest quality students. Ask your current doctoral students what elements of your program's recruitment strategy were most influential. Smeal College students said, for example, "impressions from campus visits ranked near the top of their decision criteria."
In this constantly shifting climate for graduate education, so far Penn State has weathered the storms well. Increases in enrollments at the newer programs located in urban centers have enabled the University as a whole to maintain healthy enrollments. Quantitative indicators of student quality have improved over the past decade and there are more underrepresented students in graduate programs now than in almost any other period in Penn State's history. With continued hard work by our graduate faculty in recruiting and retaining quality students, our graduate programs will remain strong and become even stronger.