How can business school admissions professionals prepare for an uncertain future? Philippe Taza, CEO of Higher Education Marketing, a digital marketing and technology agency dedicated exclusively to the education sector, looks at how to create a strategy that will weather any storm.
Future-proofing: the process of anticipating the future and developing methods of minimising the effects of shocks and stresses of future events.
For business schools, the only thing certain right now is uncertainty. Without a clear picture of the ultimate length and severity of the COVID-19 crisis and its accompanying economic impact, b-schools essentially need to prepare for the worst-case scenario, the best-case scenario, and everything in between.
However, with some careful planning, creative thinking, and a bit of hard work, admissions professionals at b-schools can put initiatives in place now that will help them weather any storm. By ‘future-proofing’ your admissions strategy, you can ensure that your school is well-placed to succeed in the months and years ahead, whatever they may bring.
What Do the Business School Students of the Next Decade Look Like? It’s Anyone’s Guess
The extent to which the pandemic impacted admissions in individual business schools largely depended on what kind of recruitment strategies they had in place. Those with strategies that focused on one or two key markets tended to fare less well than those whose strategies encompassed a broad audience.
In an article for BizEd, Mathias Falkenstein and Thijs Van Vugt pointed out that this raised some interesting questions about the future of international student recruitment for business schools. “Is our reliance on international students from one or two countries wise?” they asked. “If not from China, from what other countries should we recruit? What can b-schools do to become less reliant on one source country for their international student enrolments?”
The obvious solution, though it is easier said than done, is for institutions to cultivate a more diverse recruitment strategy that aims to attract healthy numbers of enrolments from multiple international markets, as well as at a local and national level, to ensure that the pandemic and recession doesn’t wipe out most of their student base in one fell swoop again.
A diverse strategy isn’t just about geography, however. Business schools must work to ensure that their potential audience casts as wide a net as possible in terms of the characteristics of candidates. For instance, offering more in terms of online learning could help a school attract more mature, working professionals who value the flexibility of the format, as well as the growing number of professionals who have used the switch to remote work as an opportunity to decamp from major urban centres.
Conversely, b-schools that attract a lot of established but not executive-level professionals may find that the economic impact of the crisis has put this group under extra financial pressure, and made it harder for them to fund their studies. They may need to widen their net in order to serve a broader base, targeting younger students or those in higher income brackets.
Whether young, old, online, on-campus, local, international, urban or rural, the business schools of the future need to provide options for everyone and target each group rigorously.
Delivering Business Education for All Seasons
Appealing to a wide audience means developing a wide range of programme types. On one level, this may mean adapting your mix of specialised programmes—such as MBAs in Marketing, Energy Management, Finance, etc. — to account for the changes that a turbulent economy will bring. Candidates will be looking to learn skills in industries and areas that are in high demand, and b-schools should be ready to provide it.
The format and delivery of programmes will also be more important than ever. While online and blended programmes have long been an important part of the business school landscape, they have generally been something of a niche option, preferred by a small portion of the b-school audience that prioritise flexibility and convenience.
For the majority of candidates, the opportunity to connect with other ambitious professionals face to face is a huge part of the attraction. The pandemic forced this component into the virtual realm, with students left with no choice but to continue their studies online.
Perhaps understandably, the response was very mixed. Research published in May 2020 by the Graduate Management Admissions Council indicated that 36% of GME candidates intending to begin in 2020 would opt to defer their studies if programmes started online.
This suggests that a sizable number of b-school students felt studying remotely would devalue their experience.
B-schools themselves, however, reported some positives from the enforced change, even going so far as to suggest that the experience may open the eyes of candidates to the viability of obtaining a business degree remotely.
Speaking to BusinessBecause, Cambridge Judge Business School lecturer Jeremy Hutchison-Krupat was optimistic. “There will be some return to previous practice, but this forced experiment will have a lasting effect,” he said. “There is a realisation that online learning can be enjoyable, convenient, and engaging. That doesn’t change when the coronavirus crisis passes.”
The school’s digital programme manager Mark Andrews echoed these sentiments, pointing out the unexpected innovations that the shift to remote learning had brought. “This situation has brought with it creativity in delivery design,” he noted. “It will have a lasting impact on the way we operate and think about delivery.”
Whether as a stopgap solution against any future wave of coronavirus or as a growing alternative market, the need to offer blended or fully virtual delivery of business programmes will be vital to building a sustainable admissions strategy that can withstand any eventuality.
Many business schools have already moved to replace the ad hoc, improvised deliveries they relied upon at the beginning of the crisis with more complete, enriching virtual learning environments, and this process should continue.
Additionally, business schools would be wise to invest a greater share of their marketing and promotional resources in their online and blended programmes and attempt to establish reputations for their programmes in the virtual realm that are equal to their on-campus equivalents. This strategy would ensure that admissions teams can always offer viable, credible business education to candidates regardless of the circumstances.
The Value of Business Education in a Post-Pandemic World
When considering their audience and programmes, admissions teams also need to consider the overall value a business education holds, and how this may have changed in light of the events of 2020.
One major selling point of MBA and business master’s degrees for students is that they are fairly ‘recession-proof’ qualifications. The diverse, high-level skills that graduates of these programmes possess makes them assets to businesses in many different industries through good times and bad.
Does this argument hold up in the new normal? Sadly, business school graduates have not been immune from the fallout of the crisis, such has been the scale of its economic impact. A survey conducted by RelishCareers found that over 35% of job offers extended to MBA graduates had either been changed or rescinded in light of COVID-19, affecting just over 20% of the class of 2020 and close to 40% of the class of 2021.
International graduates were hit much harder than domestic students due to travel restrictions and visa suspensions.
An employer survey produced by The Association of MBAs echoed these findings, with a total of 59% of companies stating that they expect to hire less management leaders than they had in 2019.
However, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Hiring projections in GMAC’s 2020 Corporate Recruiters Survey indicate that while companies in Wave II of the survey (conducted in July 2020) were looking at recruiting less graduates than stated in Wave I (conducted in February), they forecasted ramping up their hiring in 2021.
This suggests that the jobs market for b-school graduates will stabilise and bounce back somewhat. Furthermore, while the median salary for graduates in Wave II of the survey has reduced to $105,000 compared to $115,000 in Wave I, it remains over 60% higher than the median salary for bachelor’s degree graduates, which is $65,000. This suggests that even through the current crisis, the value of a graduate management degree as an investment for students remains very much intact.
In short, business school graduates may not be immune from the economic impact of the pandemic, but they are far better insulated against it than most. This is a message which business schools should strive to get across to prospective candidates as much as possible, and one which will help them to maintain interest in their programmes both now and in the future. They just may need to work harder than ever to do it.
Developing a Cost-Effective, Long-Term Marketing and Promotional Strategy
Many business schools are in a better position than other educational institutions in terms of having the financial resources to weather the storm of the pandemic. However, that is not to say that the sector hasn’t been feeling the pressure. B-schools have still faced drops in enrolments, as well as hesitance from candidates to move ahead with their study plans during in uncertain times.
From a marketing and promotional standpoint, this has led to a reluctance to spend within the sector, even in cases where the money is there. The crux of the problem is that admissions and marketing teams cannot justify investing in a promotion which will not provide a satisfactory return on investment (ROI).
While this caution is understandable, there is a growing need as the crisis goes on for b-schools to re-devote some of their resources to trying to attract new potential applicants and regain some traction in the marketplace.
The key to savvy business schools will be to do this wisely. For example, with many existing prospects unsure about beginning their programmes online, b-schools would be wise to target other potential applicants to take their place. This means making their programmes visible to audiences who view virtual degrees as equal to on-campus programmes or even see them as preferable.
Achieving this is not as easy as it sounds, and may take concerted efforts in advertising, SEO, social media marketing, and promotions through other channels. This is especially true for schools who expanded their online offerings or pivoted towards virtual learning for the first time after the COVID outbreak.
Because online business degrees have been a niche market in and of themselves for years, schools that concentrated on this area have established visibility, an audience, and reputation, giving them a head-start that others in the sector now need to claw back.
To illustrate this point, take a moment to do a Google search for ‘MBA degree’, then another for ‘online MBA degree’. You will likely see some very contrasting results. In this example from a Montreal-based search, local programmes from McGill University and HEC Montreal occupy two of the top five places in the first search. Athabasca University and University Canada West, two schools that focus primarily on distance learning, are more prominent in the second search.
Even where there isn’t a short-term imperative to promote your programmes, making the right moves now in terms of marketing and promotion can be beneficial in the long run. Devoting resources to long-term, sustainable strategies will ensure that your school can reap their benefits in the coming years.
For instance, inbound marketing, which combines content, social media, email, SEO, and other initiatives to boost overall visibility online, could help b-schools generate a steady stream of inquiries and applicants through good times and bad.
A good example of this in action is the efforts of London Business School following Brexit. As cited by Marco De Novellis in an article for AACSB in July, the British institution used strategic content marketing – including a combination of written, video, and social media – to reinforce its brand’s strengths in the wake of the controversial vote. As a result, it was able to increase applications by eight per cent the following year, bouncing back during a particularly challenging time. A quick glance at the school’s Twitter account shows that it maintains an active, multichannel online presence, which incorporates promoting its programmes, highlighting student voices, and amplifying content created across different channels.
Success stories like this show there is always a way to emphasise the strengths and advantages of business education, no matter what the circumstances. You just need to know-how and make the effort to do it.
Creating a Modern Admissions Communications Strategy
Most business schools will probably agree that one of the keys to a successful student recruitment approach is adopting an integrated communication strategy across both marketing and admissions.
This is best approached with the entirety of the enrolment journey in mind. Traditionally, most b-schools think of this in terms of a ‘funnel’ model, but it is perhaps best illustrated for the modern era by HubSpot’s ‘Flywheel’ approach:
Rather than being a linear process with a natural endpoint, this model envisions the journey as a continuous cycle, in which prospects progress to enrolled students, and eventually graduates and advocates of schools that help to enhance and reinforce their reputations.
Using a flywheel as a reference point allows b-schools to ensure that new prospects are sufficiently engaged to seriously consider their programmes, candidates are nurtured towards enrolment, students have a satisfying experience, and alumni remain connected to their communities after graduation.
So what will this model look like in the coming years? In addition to facing a challenging marketplace and uncertainty over programme delivery, admissions teams have had to adapt to the practical challenges of working online in the wake of the pandemic. Not only have they needed to learn to organise, manage, and communicate with their teams virtually, but they have also been robbed of several crucial audience touchpoints.
Recruitment fairs, open houses, campus tours, and other in-person events have traditionally been crucial to b-school recruitment, serving as a chance for them to connect with candidates personally and convince them that their school is the right choice.
Deprived of these avenues, admissions professionals need to work even harder to ensure each and every lead is followed up with, utilising both automated and manual email, phone, SMS, and instant messaging contact.
Simply put, every physical communication touchpoint a b-school has, needs an online equivalent. If a candidate can’t have a one-on-one meeting in the office with admissions staff, they can have a Zoom call. If an applicant can’t tour the campus, they can view a virtual tour. If a school is unable to hold a mixer for its alumni, it could create an online networking event.
This kind of approach ensures staff are on the same page and not letting their progress fall by the wayside as a result of working remotely or not being able to physically touch base with their community. From the standpoint of the students themselves, it also provides added value to compensate for the lack of key physical events.
As with so many things nowadays, technology plays a key role in supporting this. Video conferencing software like Zoom, Skype or Google Meet is obviously essential, but the role of CRM and marketing automation cannot be underplayed either. CRM systems can allow b-schools to segment and organise their contacts, log their follow-up outcomes, and create reports to view key metrics on productivity and success.
Marketing automation tools, which are often packaged as part of the same software, will allow the admissions staff to personalise follow-up emails and other assets, create lead scoring systems to prioritise contacts and automate some of their work.
When combined when a marketing strategy that ensures you are targeting a diverse audience and selling the benefits of business education (whether online, in-class or a hybrid model), this kind of communications strategy can ensure b-schools connect with the audience they need to keep their enrolment numbers healthy in the years to come.