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GME 101: The Value of Student Recruitment

The Integral Role that Recruiters Play in the Graduate Management Education (GME) Community

Stephen Taylor is the Research Director for BusinessCAS. This is the second post — read the first one here — in a new blog series, in which he’ll explore the evolving best practices and strategies the GME field will need to adopt to navigate today’s crises and gain strength in the years to come. Stay tuned for more from Stephen! 

The first time I was responsible for leading a graduate recruitment team, I felt like I was drinking from a firehose. Coming from Executive Education to the degree side of the school would require some adjustments, I knew, but there were so many surprises.

Why were all the roles titled starting at assistant director, even if the roles were fairly entry level?

Why was there so much international travel required?

How could the conversion cycle take more than a year?

And why was there so much turnover of the recruiters?

Despite the steep learning curve, I eventually realized how the student recruitment team really served as the beating heart of the organization, connecting alumni with prospective students, who in turn become alumni who connect with future generations of students.  Sure, they’re also responsible for the primary revenue function of the school – no pressure, right? Let’s see if we can demystify, just a bit, what a recruiter does and why their role is so important.

What Does a Recruiter Do?

Most people have some sense of “moving leads through the pipeline” as a general response to what a recruiter does, but you might get very different answers depending on who you ask, which is one general indicator of the breadth – and high visibility – of the role.  While it is true that recruiters are responsible for prospective student pipeline management, there’s much, much more to the role than simply sending reminders to apply.

Recruiters are responsible for discovering a prospective student’s vision, working with them to determine how their goals match up with what the programs of the school can deliver, and where there’s a match – or what virtually all recruiters will call “fit” – the role becomes one of coach and advocate. Recruiters pivot to helping the applicant complete the many requirements, chase down the many documents and submit the strongest possible candidacy to the admissions committee.  This process can take as long as two years for some candidates, allowing the recruiter to develop an authentic relationship with the applicant based on a deep understanding of the applicant’s goals and background.

The vast majority of student recruitment teams are responsible for stewarding the interest of a prospective student, supporting the completion of the application, advocating for their candidacy and ultimately, maintaining sufficient enthusiasm between admit and program start to ensure the student attends.

Return on Investment

Best practice and the competitive structure of GME suggest that student recruitment is one of the most — if not the most – important functions of a school; without it, enrolling students is exceptionally difficult. But is the investment worth it? After all, hiring a recruiter is like hiring a brand ambassador, as the recruiters will travel to fairs and conduct presentations representing the school. How much does it cost to hire a recruiter, and how much work can they do?

To steal a Peter Drucker aphorism, organizations shouldn’t be set up such that they require superheroes to manage them. As with all people and positions, your mileage may vary, but as a thought experiment, let’s imagine an archetypal student recruiter, Sam. Sam likely has at least a few years of work experience in some kind of customer or other service role. They are likely paid about $50K per year in most parts of the country, and with fringe rate, they cost you about $60K a year, total.

There’s a lot of variation as to what enrollment management leaders feel is a reasonably sized lead base for a recruiter to work, but best practices suggest the range of 800 to 1,200 leads per recruiter is usually seen as reasonable. This volume of leads requires the recruiter to be regularly trained in the use of a well-organized CRM system, and requires careful planning to include travel and presentations as part of each individual recruiter’s lead generation activities. And while there’s little reliable data shared by schools on their average lead-to-enroll statistics, the general understanding is that a 3-5% conversion rate is both necessary and sufficient to meet modest enrollment goals.

The volume and quality of leads in the system have a lot to do with how effective a recruiter can be, but we can do some simple calculations with what we’ve discussed above to get a general sense of the return on investment for an individual recruiter. With a lead base of 1,000 leads, and a 4% lead-to-enroll conversion rate, an individual recruiter can be expected to enroll at least 40 students per cycle. Putting estimates of tuition low with an average tuition of about $40K, one recruiter will usually generate about $1.6M in gross revenue – not bad for a $60K investment.

Wrapping Up

Recruiters serve as brand ambassadors to prospective students, they work with faculty, current students and alumni to support the building of future classes, and they are responsible for the full sales cycle, which can last years.  These staff, under reasonable supervision and with reasonable systems, can help to define the culture of a school, support the financial stability of a school and help define the future of a school. And for the many functions of this role, their cost to the organization can be quite reasonable. So while the role may be mysterious to those outside higher education, understanding the critical function played by these members of the team can be absolutely transformative to the growth of your institution.

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