Despite global disruptions throughout higher education in 2020 and beyond, institutional success will continue to be defined by the ability to attract new students, effectively educate them, and inspire their ongoing support as alumni. What’s changed, however, are consumer demands in the wake of the pandemic and evolving market trends.
Enrollment, student success, and alumni relations are all pieces of the same puzzle—the student lifecycle. By treating them as such, institutions can meet students' evolving needs and maintain continuity from recruitment to graduation and beyond.
In the past decade, the demand for higher education has begun to slide, with prospective students no longer seeing college as an inevitable step on their career path. The pandemic has only exacerbated this change as institutions scramble to meet expectations during a period of upheaval.
In a survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed, 91% of responding college and university admissions officers were “concerned” or “very concerned” about meeting their enrollment goals for the fall 2021 semester. As institutions look beyond COVID-19, recruitment tactics must evolve to sustain the lifecycle.
Social media has quickly become a go-to recruitment tool, but in today’s attention economy, a panoramic shot of campus is going to have some tough competition for engagement. To reach a generation of students that grew up online, the answer is not to jump on the latest TikTok trend, but to embrace the kind of peer-to-peer authenticity that’s come to define influencer culture. In addition to a steady cadence of institution-led social posts, consider hiring students as digital ambassadors to “take over” admissions’ Instagram stories for the day. These glimpses into daily life create mini campus tours that can engage prospective students anywhere.
While video may have killed the radio star, social media hasn’t yet finished off email, particularly when dealing with application logistics. Recruiting in uncertain times means clear, consistent communication is of the utmost importance, and as modern consumers, prospects expect messages to come to their inboxes already personalized.
Being able to pivot quickly institutional goals as the landscape evolves is also critical. By leveraging existing technology such as a constituent relationship management (CRM) systems, institutions can manage these targeted communications adeptly and at scale to ensure every applicant gets the exact information they need.
In response to widespread testing site closures in 2020, hundreds of institutions made a radical decision: cut standardized tests from their admissions requirements. While the ACT and SAT have long-defined college-readiness checklists, University Business notes test-optional policies were already prevalent among some schools before 2020. This is largely due to the potential bias standardized tests give wealthier students with greater access to tutoring and preparatory resources.
Whether or not test-optional policies become the norm, this is an opportunity to pause and evaluate past practices. Enrollment leaders will need to determine which metrics of success are most meaningful for their institutions moving forward. Likewise, as these requirements are updated, application volumes may spike, making it critical to equip admissions staff with the right tools and technology ahead of time.
Building a foundation for success
Once applicants receive their long-awaited decision letters, it’s the institution’s turn to wait for admitted students to become enrolled students. The right outreach at the right time will help the undecided imagine their future at an institution and take the next crucial step toward matriculation.
Lend a hand with financial aid
The ability to pay for a degree is often the weightiest factor in deciding to pursue one, particularly as the national student loan debt experienced a record-breaking increase of 3% between Q2 2020 and Q2 2021.
To make higher education more attainable, institutions must first ensure admitted students—particularly those who are first-generation and/or international—can easily navigate the federal aid application process. This applies to returning students as well. According to the National College Attainment Network, in the 2020–21 school year, there was a 4.7% drop in the number of lowest-income students who renewed their FAFSA by the national deadline. Without aid and hoping to avoid debt, these students are most at risk of dropping out. It is critical to have a financial aid system that can disburse aid accurately and efficiently, provide insights into student needs, and align to the nuances of external regulations.
Social support near and far
A sense of belonging is one of the most crucial success factors for new and returning students alike, but it’s challenging to measure. Traditional students may find community in extracurriculars, but what about part-time, remote, and continuing education students? How do institutions create a campus culture when, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, only 16 percent of undergraduates were living on campus even before the pandemic?
Today’s engagement strategies must account for the growing number of students who don’t participate in activities or flock to sports. As institutions seek safe ways for their students to convene on campus, they must continue to nurture the remote and asynchronous activities that got their community through 2020.
Accounting for basic needs
Especially in times of widespread economic precarity, institutions must be attuned to their community’s daily needs. Using data to support student well-being on a holistic scale helps alleviate financial stress to ensure students can stay enrolled, focus on their learning goals, and reach graduation.
Access to food, housing, child care, and transportation are crucial for student success, as reaffirmed by a nationwide survey conducted by The Hope Center that found nearly three in five students experience “basic-needs insecurity.” The pandemic has greatly exacerbated financial hardships for many students and institutions have begun accounting for these needs through voluntary data collection, partnering with local groups to supply vital resources.
Paving the way to graduation
One of the greatest threats to fostering an active and thriving alumni base is getting students to the finish line in the first place, which is why institutions invest so heavily in supporting students through that crucial first year of learning. Those systems tend to decentralize soon after, however, relying on individual interventions to keep students on track to graduate.
A monolithic approach to student success neglects the vast and growing population of part-time, transfer, and otherwise non-traditional students without dedicated orientation programs. Institutions must revise their success strategies to meet a wider range of student needs across the entire completion span. This is especially relevant as a higher percentage of historically underrepresented students enroll in higher education with their own specific needs.
Streamlined degree pathways
As it became clear that the pandemic’s effects would extend far beyond initial lockdowns, students around the world were forced to radically change their academic plans. According to the latest Student Voice survey reported by Inside Higher Ed, 25% of students returning to four-year colleges have altered their completion timelines and/or changed their plans for post-graduation due to COVID-19.
Student advising is only as effective as it is efficient, creating direct paths to completion with the fewest detours possible. To create these paths, the modern campus will rely on collaboration technology, sharing data between departments as well as empowering students with the information they need.
Many institutions may have taken this opportunity to prepare for a guided pathways model, if they hadn’t implemented one already. This student-centered approach has gained popularity for its clearly defined roadmaps to degree completion, and its proponents have begun adapting the model to best suit a wider range of constituents. While younger students may need space to explore their interests, older, working students often want to graduate quickly and take their next steps on a career path.
Closing gaps in career readiness
Today, higher education is not only reckoning with disrupted timelines but also new and widening gaps in career readiness due to lost networking and work experience opportunities. For many low-income students, however, these gaps were already impacting their post-graduation earnings potential before 2020, as evidenced by PayScale’s research.
While restoring pathways to success, institutions should consider how to do so equitably. Unpaid internships, study abroad, undergraduate research, and networking opportunities are career-building activities that are not always accessible to low-income students. By ensuring constituents can make use of these resources regardless of wealth, institutions are making an investment in student success, as well as future alumni’s capacity to give back to their schools after graduation.
Lifelong alumni relationships
University advancement in 2021 operates in an entirely different landscape compared to the capital project-driven campaigns of years past. With wallets snapping shut against uncertainty, forward-thinking institutions have already innovated, embracing micro-campaigns, data-informed alumni outreach, and virtual events to meet their goals. But in the face of declining donor pools, colleges and universities can’t limit their outreach to alumni. Instead, they must cultivate philanthropy throughout the student lifecycle, ensuring they can count on support from future generations year after year.
Meaningful engagement between past and present students
Graduation is a common breaking point in student engagement in part due to institutions operating academic affairs separately from advancement and alumni relations. Fostering collaboration and data-sharing between these departments will create parallel opportunities for alumni to engage with their successors, and for current students to develop a culture of philanthropy long before graduation.
As fundraising efforts pivoted in 2020 to meet student needs, donors rose to the occasion, but alumni engagement can extend beyond financial support. Create opportunities to contribute in more experiential ways such as volunteering, tutoring, mentoring, and professional consultation. Given the world’s growing access and comfort with video conferencing, these initiatives can connect alumni all over the world with current students.
Advancement offices should also continue educating students about philanthropy and the role they can fulfill as alumni in supporting future classes. Senior class giving programs, general student fundraisers, giving days, and crowdfunding initiatives all help fuel ongoing projects and create a seamless transition from graduate to donor.
Continuing education programs
Higher education was already experiencing a curricular evolution before 2020, but now the job market has irrevocably changed, and degrees are no longer the golden ticket to a lifelong career. In response, a host of new education models have arisen in service of consumers who aren’t seeking two- or four-year experiences, but specific skill-building opportunities.
“The looming issue for higher education is not just the explosion of alternative providers, but their world-class quality,” The Chronicle notes, citing Google and the Museum of Modern Art as two of the new powerhouses with which local colleges will soon compete. Traditional degrees must now share space with certificates, microcredentials, and badges. These competency-based offerings break away from the standard academic model to provide the specific skills and knowledge consumers are looking for.
While competition can be seen as a threat, it’s also an opportunity, particularly for extending the lifecycle. As former students decide to continue their education, the first place they’re going to look is their alma mater’s course catalog. By investing in more robust and flexible workforce development programs, institutions can strengthen existing alumni relations, with the added benefit of attracting new non-traditional students.
Beyond the lifecycle
When it comes to student engagement, there is no going back to “normal.” Student demographics are shifting and so, too, is the market. While the pandemic catalyzed change throughout higher education, institutions have the opportunity to accelerate their own evolution, embracing new technologies and strategies to nurture lifelong relationships with their constituents.