While undergraduate programs have struggled with declining enrollments, graduate institutions have encountered relatively flat enrollment growth in recent years. Though the trend in enrollment has remained stable, graduate institutions question if the drivers of declining undergraduate enrollment—high tuition rates, ballooning student debt, and hard to quantify educational value—will eventually erode graduate enrollment as well.

One of the ways higher education institutions can begin to get ahead on potential enrollment shortfalls is to implement a Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM) strategy. SEM is different than a traditional enrollment or recruitment strategy because it looks at the larger context of an institution (its mission, goals, as well as views on the emerging needs for skills and abilities in its students).

An SEM system gives schools a concrete way to assess these considerations and build them into the enrollment process, student recruitment, marketing, tuition and financial aid, academic portfolio offerings, and student support services. The continuous process of planning, executing, and monitoring institutional milestones provides schools with a way to achieve their goals while regularly reflecting on the full impact of measures taken.

Graduate School Enrollment Management

1. Plan

In the first stage of the SEM process, administrators determine institutional goals and translate them into a strategic plan. By establishing what the school would like to accomplish, administrators can develop a timeline and milestones to hit in order to achieve their mission. Institutions should take the following steps in the planning stage:

  • Translate institutional mission into a strategic plan
  • Establish clear enrollment goals
  • Identify optimal academic offerings
  • Set up a framework for student support services
  • Target key student success objectives

In addition, schools should identify key participants to include in the planning stage and what the participants will need in order to translate the process’s objectives to their department. Including participants from the marketing, recruitment, admissions, financial aid, student services, academic affairs, and retention departments can ensure the planning team is well-rounded and includes perspectives from various sides of the institution.

2. Execute

The execute phase allows administrators to put their plans into action. Having established a clear, strategic plan outlining academic and enrollment goals, schools can follow the milestones they have set to promote student success. In addition, institutions can begin outreach through marketing messages and social media to promote their school and reach out to prospective students. Institutions should take the following steps in the execute phase:

  • Achieve and maintain optimum enrollment
  • Promote student success
  • Curate and deliver in-demand academic programs
  • Provide top quality student-centered service
  • Generate tuition revenue
  • Craft marketing messages
  • Collect key data to track activity and progress


3. Monitor

In the monitor phase, administrators can begin to see the effect of their executed plans. Seeing an improvement in enrollment and student success can be exciting for institutions; however, this phase does not mean schools should stop their efforts. Rather, the monitor phase allows administrators to reflect on the actions taken in the execute phase, determine if they met the objectives of their strategic plan, and adjust accordingly to improve their outcomes. An SEM plan is a repeating cycle, not a straight timeline—by continuously reviewing successes made and areas that need improvement, institutions can progress more effectively toward their goals.
Institutions should take the following steps in the monitor phase:

  • Review and continually improve cross-departmental communications and collaboration
  • Seek opportunities to improve organizational efficiency
  • Assess student and department satisfaction for improved service

Spotlight: How the University of Illinois System Built Successful SEM Plans

In Summer 2016, each University of Illinois System university created an enrollment management strategic plan, with the end goal of increasing system enrollment by approximately 15% in the next five years. The universities followed strategic enrollment principles, such as maintaining education quality, increasing opportunities for Illinois residents, and benchmarking with peer institutions to understand the competitive landscape. Additionally, each campus created their own strategic enrollment plan to reflect their different strengths and weaknesses. For example, based on its already strong freshman class, Urbana-Champaign is focused on growing graduate and professional programs.

Interested in learning more about implementing an SEM plan for graduate student recruitment? Download the research brief Best Practices in Graduate Student Recruitment for key strategies to drive student success.

Hanover Research