The New Realities of Today’s Grad Student Recruitment Messaging: Seven Insights From the 2019 NAGAP Inquiry Response Project

RJ Nichol
May 21, 2020

Every year since 2016, Liaison has conducted studies that involve submitting inquiry forms to hundreds of schools and then tracking the schools’ responsiveness to those inquiries. Data collected includes information about the timing, methods and types of responses received. The purpose is to uncover trends in communications to potential applicants and, in turn, to identify and share best practices for driving applications and increasing enrollment. The results of the NAGAP member-focused study reveal how and why graduate student engagement initiatives should meet user expectations. They also provide actionable insights about the current recruitment landscape and strategies for achieving enrollment goals.

Those insights are important in the best of times. But during times like these, when nearly everyone seems to be questioning old assumptions and seeking better ways to achieve results, they’re absolutely essential. They provide the guidance you need to immediately begin charting a course to navigate today’s new challenges.

Regardless of current events, graduate admissions professionals are united by the need to attract and enroll best-fit applicants faster and more effectively in a highly competitive and uncertain environment. In addition to the challenges posed by high recruitment costs, budget constraints and declining application volumes, many admissions professionals are operating in a vacuum, unsure how to gauge the success of their efforts and unaware of the strategies other schools are using to reach high-value students first.

To address those questions and concerns, Liaison conducts an annual inquiry response project in which researchers pose as prospective students online, searching for and then submitting “request for information” (RFI) forms when they are available. In 2019, Liaison reviewed the web sites of 517 NAGAP member graduate schools in such a manner and assessed the results based on a variety of criteria.

The goal was to find out how accessible schools were for interested students requesting information, how fast they responded, how relevant their responses were and how many communication channels they used.

The results identify important trends around student engagement. The insights they provide allow admissions professionals to compare and contrast their inquiry response strategies to those of other schools and to plan strategic changes that will help drive applications and increase yield.

Liaison ultimately identified seven best practices regarding inquiry forms and responses.

Inquiry forms must be:

  • Easy to find.
  • User-friendly.
  • Mobile-ready.

Responses must be:

  • Immediate.
  • Personalized to each student.
  • Relevant.
  • Delivered through multiple channels.

For the reasons described in this report, all of those features in your inquiry response strategy will allow your school to clearly explain the benefits of its programs and develop a relationship with students based on meaningful information and communications — even before the application stage.

Posing as potential applicants, Liaison researchers visited the websites of 517 NAGAP-member graduate schools and submitted the institutions’ online “request for information” forms when they could be located. They then recorded information regarding the availability of those inquiry forms, the speed of response, the relevance/personalization of responses and details about the channels used to deliver responses.

Best practice takeaways

Make sure your RFI form is easy to find. Graduate school requires a substantial investment of time and money. In order to clearly explain the benefits of your programs and develop a relationship based on meaningful information and communication — even before the application stage — prospective students must be able to locate your RFI form effortlessly.

What we found:

  • 32% of schools had an RFI on their home page; 20% were visible without scrolling.
  • Researchers could not locate RFIs for 15% of the schools surveyed.
  • The number of clicks required to find an RFI ranged from zero (when the forms were on the school’s home page) to seven.

Keep forms user-friendly. Make sure your form makes a good first impression. Keep it short and ensure all of the information it contains is still accurate and up to date. Also, it’s preferable not to require the student to create an account in order to access the form.

What we found:

  • 120 schools displayed outdated information on their RFI.
  • 148 schools asked for a text message opt-in.
  • 24 required the prospective student to create an account to get information.

Be mobile-ready. Mobile devices are everywhere. How many students do you know who don’t have one? It’s critical that your site is “responsive” — i.e., optimized for mobile.

What we found:

  • All but two schools had a web page with responsive (i.e., mobile-friendly) design.
  • 84% of the RFI forms were responsive.
  • 98% of applications were responsive.

Send a dynamic, “Thank you.” Have you seen your response page recently? Someone who takes the time to fill out a form is eager to hear more about what your institution has to offer. Don’t send a generic acknowledgment of their interest. Provide a dynamic, personalized response based on the information they were willing to submit.

What we found:

  • Nearly 62% of schools display a generic “Thank you” message upon submitting the RFI.
  • Only 6.3% provided a dynamic, personalized page upon submission.

Be fast. Be first. No one wants to wait for information. Immediate response is key. In fact, one recent study of online students showed that 61% enrolled at the institution that contacted them first. Your school can’t afford to take its time replying.

What we found:

  • 6.3% provided an immediate response with a personalized web page.
  • Just under half of the schools respond within one hour.
  • 16% of the schools did not respond to a submitted form within four weeks.

Make it personal. Studies show a 135% increase in response when a mail piece is personalized with a first name and up to a 500% increase in response rate when a piece is personalized with a first name plus additional relevant information. If a student took the time to fill out the form, they are ready to hear more and engage with you – but do them the courtesy of using the information they have provided.

What we found:

  • Over half of the schools responded and used a name plus another factor of interest to the student (usually the academic program of interest).
  • 9% used the student name only.

Deliver through multiple channels. It’s science. Messages are more likely to reach long-term memory if repeated across multiple channels. Liaison has found that adding digital to a search campaign with print and email can increase response by up to 200%.

What we found:

  • Only 5% of schools used at least 3 channels.
  • 46% used only email to communicate.
  • 12% sent just a single email in four weeks as a response.

Channels used

Our project resulted in several insights into how graduate programs are responding to student inquiries; only a sampling are shared here. A few other interesting findings include:

  • 60 schools offered a chat feature on their home page.
  • 54% of schools offered social media links on their home page.
  • 67% of schools had a link to an application on their home page.
  • The number of emails sent by each school within four weeks ranged from zero to 23.
  • 94 print pieces were received in four weeks. Of these, 56 arrived in oversized envelopes, 5 arrived in clear envelopes and 16 were postcards.
  • Our “student” received 60 voicemails and 29 text messages over a four-week period from all schools.

To learn more about this study and how to craft effective inquiry reply strategies, contact Dr. Suzanne Sharp, executive director of Enrollment Management Consulting, Liaison at

RJ Nichol

You may also enjoy

Over the last three decades, Liaison has helped over 40,000 programs on more than 1,200 campuses more effectively manage admissions through its Centralized Application Service (CAS™) technology and complementary application processing and support services. The higher education technology leader supports its partner institutions’ total enrollment goals by pairing CAS with its Enrollment Marketing (EM) platform as well as the recently acquired TargetX (CRM) and advanced analytics software Othot.