Saybrook Defies the Great Recession
The Ivory Tower lives in the same economy as the rest of the world, and according to articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, American graduate school enrollment is flat and stagnant.
That’s not the case at Saybrook University, a graduate-only institution which, according to just-released enrollment numbers, now has the highest number of students in its history – a 36% increase over the number of students it had in 2008, when the Great Recession began, and a 32% increase over Fall 2012 new student headcount.
“These are remarkable results that buck the overwhelming trends in higher education, and they’re no accident,” said Saybrook President Mark Schulman. “They are the result of years of effort, both to perfect existing recruitment techniques and to develop entirely new approaches. We are getting better results than other graduate institutions because we were ahead of the curve in experimentation, testing, and development of new admissions processes.”
But is what’s good for Saybrook good for American higher education as a whole? Could the secret to its success apply to other, peer institutions?
That depends on their willingness to innovate, combining data with a clear human connection.
Some of the reasons for Saybrook’s success are built into its institutional DNA: the fact, for example, that it offers “hybrid” classes, that combine the flexibility of online learning with periodic in-person conferences, allowing students the chance to meet and interact directly with their professors. It’s a model that appeals to the many potential students who can’t afford to stop working, or to relocate, while getting their degree – but who value the kinds of personal connections to their faculty and fellow students that brick-and-mortar schools offer.
But other elements of its success emerged as part of a several years of data-driven experimentation.
“Saybrook’s significant increase in enrollment is the result of numerous factors, notably a new scholarship program designed to recognize individuals who are the best match for Saybrook,” said Russ Watjen, Saybrook’s Interim Chief Enrollment Officer. “The economy and student’s ability to pay continues to be an important part in the current college choice process.”
The scholarship program, developed over several year’s data-collection with the research firm Enrollment Research Associates, led by Paul Hamborg, looks at a number of different variables to determine a prospective student’s level of interest and how much that level can be influenced by the offer of scholarship money. The Saybrook Admissions department can then use that information to funnel limited scholarship dollars to the students whose decisions are most likely to be effectively impacted by them.
“For years, undergraduate institutions have been using scholarships and financial aid to attract students that are the best fit for their programs, but graduate-level institutions have resisted this approach,” said Hamborg. “Our success this year shows that this approach can be highly effective in increasing enrollment, while making graduate school more affordable for many students.”
But while the more effective targeting of scholarships through data is a key part of Saybrook’s success, it’s not the only part. The human touch is equally as important – and far more likely to disappear in a time of scarce resources and computerized efficiencies. But that, said Watjen, is a mistake.
“Faculty and staff have played the most critical roles in providing students with high quality programs, exceptional service and ongoing personal attention,” he said. “All this has resulted in the University being able to go against the national tide of declining enrollment, and achieve this dramatic increase in enrollment.”
There’s no substitute for a human connection: where to apply it in a time of scarce resources, however, is a question that data can help answer, as Saybrook’s success demonstrates.