Recruiting in uncertain times: Engaging the Class of 2024
- Students need reassurance that the institution has a plan in place
- Now is the time to lean on technology to keep prospective students engaged
- Virtual tours and other strategies are crucial
In the blink of an eye, the higher education experience for incoming first-year students has changed. Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, uncertainty has become the norm, transforming what should be an exciting time for new and prospective students into months of uncertainty and worry.
Will a newly minted high school senior be able to attend in-person classes at the institution of her choice in the fall? Good question—and one with no definitive answer. A Chronicle of Higher Education compilation indicates that 70 percent of colleges and universities are planning for in-person classes, as of mid-May. The California State University system, however, has announced plans to suspend most-in-person classes through the fall semester. The landscape is changing on a weekly—if not daily—basis.
In a recent ACT/NRCCUA survey, 63 percent of students indicated that their college choice had not been influenced by COVID-19. Further, 54 percent indicated they were very confident their first choice was still the right choice, and an additional one in six high school seniors who expected to attend a four-year college full time before the COVID-19 outbreak believed that they might choose a different path this fall were somewhat confident about their choice. However, 64 percent indicated they were extremely or moderately concerned about the impact of illness on their family; 60 percent were extremely or moderately concerned that their financial situation could change; and 56 percent were extremely or moderately concerned that their enrollment could be delayed. In another survey, one in six high school seniors who expected to attend a four-year college full time before the outbreak of COVID-19 believed that they might choose a different path this fall. What this means is that the Class of 2024 is still wrestling with an enormous degree of uncertainty, and while they may remain confident in their first-choice school, they are questioning if circumstances may force them to change plans.
That’s precisely why institutions need to step up their game to reach out to these students and assure them that—despite the ongoing uncertainty in the world—attending the institution of their choice is still a viable option. It’s time for “engagement on steroids,” and that entails reaching out to prospective students through a variety of channels and methodologies.
“Engagement on steroids” does not mean abandoning tried-and-true methods or trying something radically new when communicating with students. Rather, this is an opportune moment to better utilize the technology your institution has on hand—whether it’s recruiting tools, reporting and analytics solutions, or CRM technology. As the ACT/NRCCUA study advises: “Institutions [should] elevate melt strategies to be in rich communication with deposited students. Institutions should know where deposited students stand in terms of family situation. Institutions should provide transparent, timely, and supportive information to students in the transition from decision to enrollment.” And the best way to make that happen is to utilize your campus technology to its full capabilities. That’s how to ensure your institution has an edge during these uncertain times. For example, does your institution have an analytics tool that hasn’t been properly utilized for some time? Now is the time to dust it off and make the most of its capabilities. Your analytics tools can help you identify the characteristics of which students are participating in online orientation, compared with the characteristics of those who are not participating. There may be patterns for these groups, and this information will be helpful as you continue to communicate with students moving forward.
Most importantly, students want to feel like the institution cares and has their best interests at heart. According to Inside Higher Ed, almost one half (47 percent) of students are looking for a one-on-one conversation with admissions right now, so it’s a good time for the admissions department to reach out to prospective students for a chat. This may mean utilizing student leaders, faculty, staff, and alumni as ambassadors when reaching out to prospects. For example, my daughter, a current high school senior, has been participating in regular Zoom check-ins with her future college basketball coach and teammates. This has given her a small group to identify with and helps her to build enthusiasm for starting college soon.
A new way to engage: The virtual tour
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, prospective students would have been visiting campuses for prospective schools throughout April and May. However, that didn’t happen. It now falls on the shoulders of colleges and universities to engage students without the on-campus visit.
Students are wrestling with disappointment, as more than one half of students said they had hoped to make campus visits this spring, either for the first time or to visit their top-choice colleges again. Without the capability to make an in-person visit, students are actively re-thinking their choices, with nine out of 10 prospective students saying their decision process has been impacted by the ability (or inability) to make an in-person campus visit.
But there’s a bright spot here. Although the campus visit has traditionally been a major factor in the prospective student’s decision-making process, 44 percent of today’s students are open to the idea of taking a “virtual” tour of campus amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Without question, a virtual tour is a necessity to engage these students—and in many cases, the only option in the arsenal for institutions to provide some kind of on-campus experience to incoming students at this stage. A campus visit is often the activity that seals the deal on a student’s decision to attend an institution, and with traditional spring visitation days being cancelled, it is important to keep the institution top of mind for prospective students and their families.
And recent surveys indicate that today’s students are not just open to virtual tours—they are also willing to make decisions around which institution to attend based, in part, on a virtual tour. Almost one half (46 percent) of respondents said they were “somewhat likely to,” “highly likely to,” or “absolutely would” choose a college they had never physically visited.
Although institutions are still struggling with how to handle higher education during the pandemic, a sizable number of schools are coming around to the idea of virtual tours: 26 percent of institutions plan on adding a virtual tour just as 54 percent are now actively promoting a virtual tour that has already or soon will be ready to go. Both Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, among others, are offering such tours.
Virtual tours should include more than aesthetically appealing shots of campus (although those are certainly important). The best student tours utilize current students who provide a guided exploration of campus that showcase what the institution has to offer—academics, student life, athletics, and so on. Someday, these prospective students may be attending classes on campus, so it’s a good idea to give them a taste of what campus life will look and feel like once the pandemic ebbs.
Institutions are also advised to create more focused tours that highlight areas of interest to specific populations, such as library resources, athletic facilities, maker spaces, science laboratories, or music and art facilities. Such targeted videos can complement a more general campus tour and provide an in-depth look at areas that will appeal to different student interests.
Other ways to connect: Virtual acceptance, social media, and the campus leader video
Receiving an acceptance letter from an institution is a significant moment for students. Taking that experience a step further with a “virtual” acceptance can go a long way toward crafting a bond between the student and the institution. A virtual acceptance video, with current students, faculty, or notable alumni welcoming the student to the institution, is a powerful message that resonates on a personal level. Many institutions—62 percent—have begun to implement these and other techniques, such as video-based interviews, meetings, and admissions info sessions to help keep students on track.
Most institutions have some kind of social media strategy and use it to varying degrees of success. However, now is an opportune time to leverage social media platforms to engage prospective students who may be feeling uneasy about their future and their academic choices. That could mean adding social media platform live events (46 percent of institutions are doing this) to keep students engaged and coming back to the school’s social circle.
Regardless, institutions simply must ramp up their social media presence during this time. North Carolina State University and Virginia Tech, for example, maintain an active and evolving presence on Facebook, while Swarthmore College has Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp accounts specifically geared toward the Class of 2024. My high-school senior daughter notes that this social media engagement is very helpful in forming a connection to the freshman class. While these engagements are light, they provide a sense of who your future classmates are.
At a minimum, social media should be employed to provide updates and reassurances on the health and safety of current students and employees during this time. That means going old school and providing basic information, such as an FAQ on the coronavirus and the institution’s response and continuity plan for newly admitted students.
Student and campus leader videos—showcasing class presidents, influential students, and, of course, prominent faculty—may spark a continued connection with institution. These don’t necessarily need to be one-offs, either: a series of well-produced, engaging, or even humorous videos could keep students coming ack for more. Student leaders, for example, might highlight campus traditions and lore—and videos along these themes would not only be informative, but also help connect prospective students with campus culture—at least virtually—for the time being.
Paying for an education in the time of coronavirus: Recent or anticipated hardships play a role
College affordability has always been an issue—but in the current economic climate, with families facing record unemployment, the question of higher education affordability is more salient than ever. An alarming 69 percent see the health crisis changing their financial situation with respect to higher education, and some families may face the very real prospect of plundering college savings just to pay household expenses as the crisis drags on.
Respondents said they weren’t confident that they could choose the top institution on their list cited various concerns—but the most prevalent was cost: 21 percent of those students said their “first-choice school may no longer be affordable for my family” because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. In the same survey, 32 percent noted that they were considering a less-expensive institution.
Although 23 percent of the sample said they have a high level of confidence in their ability to afford college, that's down from 32 percent who said they had a high level of confidence before the pandemic took hold. And 17 percent of students are not at all confident they can afford college now—up from 11 percent before the outbreak, and those last numbers are even higher for minority or economically disadvantaged students, who were already struggling to afford an education.
To address these concerns, institutions should first and foremost keep the lines of communication open with students—let them know that the institution is aware of these concerns and is taking steps to address them. The ACT/NRCCUA survey notes: “The special segment of students who have already experienced economic loss due to COVID-19 requires specific outreach. What financial aid resources had your institution identified to help these students? How can you make sure that students in difficult circumstances are aware of the resources available to help them?” Leveraging CRM technology will ensure that each student knows that financial concerns are top-of-mind for the institution—in addition to health and safety concerns.
Secondly, institutions need to draft a financial aid strategy to ease the burden for students. For some schools, that could mean adjusting tuition to reflect the temporary online/remote nature of education, at least until in-person classes become the norm again. Or institutions may consider adjusting timelines for deposits and fees. Two-thirds of students felt that a May 1 deadline to reply to an offer of admission was unreasonable, and a change in date from May 1 to June 1 seems to be attracting support. Therefore, some flexibility in payment schedules may be in order.
In addition, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, with nearly $14 billion dedicated for higher education institutions and their students, provides an emergency relief fund to provide more flexibility for financial aid to students that includes grants, work-study programs, and loan deferments. Institutions such as Mercer County Community College are acting quickly to support their students.
Looking ahead to fall 2020
In the fall, prospective students become current students—and one of the most significant rites of passage that these students participate in is freshman orientation. However, the pandemic is forcing institutions to re-think orientation.
Even before the coronavirus crisis, traditional orientation programs often struggled with how to give incoming students access to the flood of important information without making it seem like attendees were drinking from a fire hose. Remote orientation sessions can provide an opportunity to deliver information in more digestible chunks. By providing a mix of asynchronous information sessions and synchronous opportunities to engage with key departmental staff and student leaders, attendees can access the information in flexible, and perhaps more digestible, ways. If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that the pandemic is forcing institutions to examine the effectiveness of orientation programs.
Tackle the anxiety head on
High school juniors and seniors are experiencing an unprecedented level of anxiety—their world has been turned upside down as they find themselves unable to participate in the social events and rituals that have traditionally marked “normal” high school life. Graduation ceremonies, proms, and senior trips have been postponed or canceled. The ACT/NRCCUA survey indicated that loss of high school events and activities was the top concern of high school students; I definitely see this sense of loss this with my high-school senior daughter and her friends. And now, with historically elevated unemployment rates, college affordability is in question. Prospective students are asking themselves: Will my family be OK? Will my finances be stable? Will my college allow me to enroll as planned?
These are certainly weighty questions. It’s incumbent on institutions to address them as best they can, both directly and honestly. This is a prime time for institutions to lean on their CRM technology to make sure that students don’t fall between the cracks. Now, more than ever, comprehensive communication with prospective students will make or break student success and engagement. The right technology will help any institution to reach out and open a dialogue with students who may be in limbo. Use that technology to bring them into the fold and to honestly and forthrightly tackle their questions.
The honest response from an institution may be: There are still unknown factors; we are planning for different scenarios; and we will update you on a precise schedule. Students should be assured that, no matter what, the institution is there for them. Things may be rocky for the time being. But the institution has a plan—and that plan involves initiatives such an insightful virtual tour, a deeply meaningful message from current students, personalized guidance for admissions and financial aid issues, a sharp orientation video—and, eventually, a fantastic college experience with fellow members of the Class of 2024.