Liaison International’s Bob Alig recently interviewed Kelly Sugrue, assistant dean of admissions at Brandeis International Business School and a member of Liaison’s BusinessCAS™ advisory board. Read how Kelly is using data to drive admissions decisions at Brandeis IBS.
Bob Alig (BA), Liaison: You bring perspective to this discussion on recruiting for graduate management programs from a number of institutions and roles that you’ve had. Can you give us a little context for what’s special and unique about Brandeis? How is it similar to previous experiences, and what’s different? Another way I thought about asking this question is, what about Brandeis led you to decide to join the admissions office and take on your current role?
Kelly Sugrue (KS), Brandeis: I’ve worked in admissions from all angles, undergraduate, graduate, traditional arts and sciences and graduate business for 10 years or so. The thing that keeps me in admissions is that it’s the same whether you’re working with a student for graduate school, or undergraduate, for any program. You’re always trying to find the right fit for the student and the institution. It’s about making sure that you’re giving the student the right opportunity and you can give them the tools to get where they want to be. That’s the common thread for me and why I love admissions so much.
When I was relocating from California to the East Coast, I had a colleague at Brandeis and I knew a little about the school having grown up in the Northeast. As I was researching institutions in the Boston area, I particularly appreciated the diversity Brandeis offered. It’s a unique place — I’ve worked in diverse environments in the past at many different schools, but Brandeis at its core is about embracing and preparing students for this multicultural business environment. Not only does the curriculum offer diversity by presenting case studies from all over the world; clubs and organizations are global in nature and there are numerous international experiences in which students can get involved. The student body in and of itself represents over 40 countries!
Looking at potential matches for institutions, that was a primary consideration for me — to be able to continue working with students of diverse backgrounds, professional interests and cultural differences. Brandeis has lived up to those expectations and even surpassed them in how diversity is embraced and celebrated. A lot of schools talk about being personalized, but Brandeis is extremely so in how we approach each student’s education. We don’t just have classes on the smaller side — each student has an academic advisor, a program director and a career coach. Everyone is focused on the student’s success. That personalized fit aligns with my approach to admissions: when you’re trying to find the best fit for students, you’ve got to make sure you learn enough about the student to talk about how Brandeis can partner with them for success. I thought that personalized piece was important because of the way I work, and finding a school committed to that level of attention was a priority.
Another nice thing I discovered about Brandeis is the innovative nature of the institution. In the business school admissions group, we’re always trying to be innovative. We worked on implementing a chat function — it was something we had done at the University of San Francisco. We’ve incorporated it as a way students can actively engage with the admissions team. From an institutional level, we’re always trying to deliver programs and degrees in ways that match what’s out there in terms of demand. We’re considering not only what our school is skilled at but looking at how we can develop new programs and concentrations to adapt and deliver to the changing marketplace.
BA: You can’t see this because I’m not on video, but I’m smiling and nodding as you’re talking because so much of what’s important to you is exactly what I love about admissions and connecting with students. It’s so powerful when you put your voice to it, and your passion is so evident, even on a phone call.
KS: Thanks! I’ve been in the field a long time and I think one of the things that motivates the admissions lifers is that even though you have similar experiences at every school, because every student is different, you’re always creatively and professionally challenged to go on the journey with them and help them find the right fit. Hopefully, it’s with your institution but, if it’s not, it’s important to leave the conversation knowing the student still had a good experience at your school.
BA: Pivoting a bit — you’ve talked about fit and making sure Brandeis supports students in their career aspirations. How do you use data to ensure the right fit and how is that different from ways you’ve used data in previous experiences?
KS: Data very much drives me personally and drives the admissions process. I think even more so that it pushes the industry regarding the future of graduate business education. I try to find good sources of data, both internal and external, to guide decisions. Internally we look at things like our website traffic, application activity from certain regions, where we’ve recruited and the outcomes, the return on investment from different events and activities and how students are engaging with us. We use external sources like test-taker trends and what the job market requires as measurements.
The business school landscape has gotten more competitive. With the proliferation of specialized master’s degrees, the data is changing a lot. I looked at some GMAC reports, and 10 years ago specialized master’s programs had started, but they were in their infancy in the types of degrees offered. As you watch these programs and areas of interest from the student perspective, as well as what institutions are delivering, we can’t get enough data to inform our leadership on what to offer based on the trends we are seeing. We tend to do some trial cases. For example, when launching our MS in business analytics, we looked at test-taker trends among students interested in that type of degree, as well as the job market and what employers were looking for in skill sets from potential employees. We also reviewed how popular analytics concentrations were in our other programs — concentrations can be an indicator of student interests. We were looking at all those pieces.
You really have to continue to find ways to use the data, from finding the data to pulling out actionable insights so you can continue to evolve your strategy.
BA: Speaking of the pressure to evolve your strategy, what’s keeping you up at night?
KS: Obviously, we’re in a fluid environment regarding policies that affect everyone — from international travel to education to employment. In this time of changing and evolving policies around these areas, how do we continue to get the word out that Brandeis is committed to being a welcoming home to students for the duration of their education? Brandeis was founded as an institution of inclusion; at the business school, we celebrate that diversity. Making sure that messaging shows up in our outreach — especially to international students in this climate — shows we’re very attuned to the issues. We’re reinforcing the inclusive nature of the school in our messaging.
Recently we had an event called the Global Gala that’s meant to celebrate the diverse cultures that make up the International Business School. It’s half talent show, and there’s food from all over the world — it’s really meant to bring together and celebrate all the cultures that make Brandeis IBS so unique. We need to be highlighting and embracing these types of experiences and making students aware that this is a foundation of our community.
BA: Exploring another topic, can you talk about your decision to join Liaison’s BusinessCAS advisory board? What do you see as the upside for you and Brandeis through your participation and involvement?
KS: Being in the profession for a long time, I’m always looking for a way to give back to admissions and the graduate management education community. Also, I find value in graduate management education, particularly in making it as accessible as possible to students. I was excited to get involved because this board is tackling that — looking into a common application for the graduate business community is looking at issues of access and making graduate business education more visible to students.
We’re taking the long view. This isn’t going to happen overnight, but I’ve been energized working with colleagues and the Liaison team. We’re starting to think of ways we can use this opportunity to reach more institutions and provide students a more efficient, streamlined way to access graduate business education. There’s a great opportunity for Liaison to look to those of us who work most closely with students for input, not just to answer questions like, “What would make this most functional for institutions?” or “What capabilities are needed to meet the different needs of various programs?” but also to determine how we can make it as easy as possible for students to see a list of all these schools — many of which they maybe haven’t considered before!
I’m always looking for more sources of data, and I’m intrigued by the potential of the platform to collect data on students — programs they’re interested in, regions where they want to study. The potential to disseminate this data to the community is exciting as well. As a data lover, I’m interested in what Liaison sees in the landscape. There’s mutual benefit in the types of data Liaison can collect and provide. It’s also about institutions being able to make their product and the value of their programs more accessible in the marketplace.
BA: Earlier, you made comments about fit and connecting with students to determine fit. Do you see opportunities for working with Liaison and BusinessCAS to expand reach and engage with prospective students in ways that would distinguish Brandeis, but also help them distinguish fit?
KS: Absolutely. As I learn more, I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen in Liaison’s team, both their facilities and their reputation. The longstanding work that Liaison has done in different educational disciplines is exciting. I think Brandeis is a unique place for a lot of the reasons I talked about earlier. It’s ideal for someone who is looking for an institution that has a global focus and offers opportunities for international experience, global community and diversity. But at the root, it is focused on making sure the student has the attention and resources they need to make this a rewarding process and to get where they want to go.
There are tremendous opportunities for BusinessCAS to help institutions like Brandeis. For us, we have a chance to connect with students interested in graduate business education who may not be aware of us but are excited about being in Boston, having opportunities for global access and being in an innovative environment. With BusinessCAS, as students are looking at programs in Boston or the Northeast, we have the opportunity for our program to be presented to them. We have a way to get in front of students who are serious about graduate business education — those who are taking steps to inquire and apply. Being able to engage with them, find out where they are in the process and determine whether Brandeis could be a good fit is a great opportunity.
It’s all about access both ways — BusinessCAS offers access to program information on the students’ side, but also a way for institutions to get access to these motivated, strong students so we can meet them where they are in the process and have conversations about fit.
If you’re looking to attract the right applicants to your graduate management education programs, BusinessCAS can help. Learn more about how BusinessCAS can help you reach your enrollment goals at businesscas.org.