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Manette Frese_Loyola University Maryland
Manette Frese, director of marketing for graduate programs at Loyola University Maryland, seen here at the university's Timonium campus, says recruiting graduate students more aggressively has become critical in higher education. (The Daily Record/Maximilian Franz)

Md. universities competing fiercely for graduate students

In the marketing departments of colleges across Maryland, a paradigm shift is taking root. The old way of doing things isn’t going to cut it anymore, and the universities know it.

There’s talk of new tactics, new targets, new approaches — even talk of imitating the strategies used by for-profit institutions, the very institutions that have disrupted higher education and contributed to the need for change in the first place.

At many universities, marketing and admissions officials are increasingly focusing their efforts on the graduate student population. That means recruiting potential grad students more aggressively and with different strategies than in the past, according to officials at several Maryland colleges.

“Over the last 10 years, economic events have contributed to a higher need for more proactive recruitment,” particularly on the graduate side, said Manette Frese, the director of marketing for graduate programs at Loyola University Maryland.

That trend has accelerated in recent years, driven by increased competition from for-profit institutions and other nontraditional education providers, which often target adults learners. In addition, economic conditions have caused a slowdown for certain graduate programs, particularly the MBA.

“The undergraduate component is the engine that runs the university, but graduate education is important to our mission, and [graduate tuition revenue] is an important part of the budget,” Frese said.

“So, we’ve rolled up our sleeves and figured out, where are the opportunities? What are the future needs in our economy?” Frese said. “How can we fulfill the needs of our mission and the needs of our budget, design the right programs, and then find the students to fill those programs?”

Those are the questions being asked at universities across the state — across the country, really — and each institution has found different ways of answering them.

Wooing partners

At Stevenson University, relationship-building is the name of the game. Other universities also emphasize making connections with the business community, but for Stevenson those partnerships are the foundation of its recruiting strategy.

Stevenson has negotiated partnerships with dozens of health care employers throughout the state, as well as a long list of police departments and community colleges to whom the school offers a “preferred tuition rate” in exchange for a steady stream of applicants to its School of Graduate and Professional Studies.

The terms of each partnership differ. For example, Stevenson may offer a 20 percent discount on tuition for students who are employed by partner organizations.

The benefits to the employers are obvious, but those partnerships also noticeably boost enrollment for Stevenson, said Joyce Becker, dean of the graduate and professional school.

“By partnering with businesses, we’re also able to tailor some programming directly to their needs,” Becker said. “And being a preferred provider gives us an advantage, I think, when employers are looking to send their employees somewhere to obtain a higher degree, they might choose to refer them to us first.”

Because the market for graduate education has become much more saturated over the past several years, getting on an edge on the competition is hugely important, several people said.

According to Kristen Hughes, associate director of graduate marketing and university enrollment marketing at Towson University, the competition for graduate students is fiercer than for undergrads. That’s why colleges are fine-tuning their strategies for reaching that population, she said.

“The undergraduate side is a well-oiled machine,” Hughes said. “The graduate population is so much smaller. We’re used to our local competition, but now we have all these other education models competing in the mix, too.”

In response, Towson has tried to distinguish itself by sharpening its outreach efforts, Hughes said.

Towson now holds open houses where potential grad students can explore all the graduate programs offered. Previously, individual degree programs held those events, but some students want to check out more than one field.

“You’d think everyone exploring grad school would know which program they want, but not everyone does,” Hughes said.

Also, Towson is looking into ways of bringing classes to the students, rather than vice versa. Towson Learning Network already brings education courses to certain off-campus locations by partnering with local school systems. Hughes said she’d like to launch similar programs for other industries.

Traditional adverting, direct mailings and other “stalwart components” of marketing won’t go away, said Frese, at Loyola.

“But we’re now enhancing those methods by emulating what our business brethren are doing,” she said. “For-profit businesses don’t hesitate to capture eyeballs anywhere they are — television, airports, billboards, malls — so Loyola is doing those things.”

Enrollment swings

Loyola, like other schools, was hit hard by the recession. Graduate enrollment at Loyola declined by nearly 17 percent over a five-year period ending in the fall of last year. Frese attributed the decrease to the sluggish economic recovery, but graduate enrollment there was trending down even from 2002 to 2006, before the recession.

There were 2,656 grad students enrolled at Loyola in 2002, compared to 1,883 students in 2014.

Towson’s numbers also reflect what officials said is a nationwide trend of declining graduate enrollment during the post-recession years. In 2010, there were 4,311 grad students enrolled at Towson. Four years later, that number was 3,478.

The decline “is one of the reasons why you are seeing a special emphasis on graduate enrollment management and marketing,” Hughes said. “There is no doubt the landscape for graduate education is a tough one.”

The story is different at Stevenson, where overall enrollment, including undergraduate, has been on the upswing for years. Within the School of Graduate and Professional Studies — which also serves undergraduates looking for specific career training — the growth has been driven largely by the graduate population, Becker said.

Universities likely won’t back away from their new, more aggressive recruiting tactics any time soon, several people said, but they’re taking care to not stray too far from their nonprofit missions.

“It is a new way to recruit, most definitely,” Stevenson’s Becker said. “I don’t want to say it’s modeled after the for-profits exactly, because we have an entirely different philosophy, but I think you will see more and more nonprofit [universities] heading in this direction.”

About Alissa Gulin

Alissa Gulin covers health care, education and general business at The Daily Record.