Admissions Season:

The Great Unknown

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Lauren Wilson - Author
by Lauren Wilson

Higher Ed Recruitment in the Age of COVID

With the start of this semester comes the rollout of student recruitment efforts for next fall—and directors of enrollment, admissions counselors, students and parents alike all face unchartered territory. Many, in fact, are seeing the upcoming year as requiring an entire re-think of the admissions process.[1] With stakes this high, your current marketing and communication efforts have never been more critical in filling the application pool…and the pressure is on.

But seen through the lens of opportunity, this fall’s disruptions take on interesting aspects: they’re a chance to test an educational organization’s ability to adapt to a volatile environment; to rethink your ideal prospect; to tell the story of your institution in a whole new way. All of which present the potential to unearth new avenues of applicants, and new communication opportunities.

If there’s on thing we can safely predict, it’s that the upcoming election and COVID (not to mention whatever else 2020 throws our way) will dominate all media channels. This may render previously reliable channels – especially social media – inundated with clutter and noise, making it more difficult then ever for your message to break through. So be sure to ruthlessly measure, optimize and pivot any and all marketing initiatives to the best performers—early, and often.

Another major area of change is the question of how to best assess applicant qualifications. A lack of standardized test scores (not to mention holes in transcripts, due to remote learning) have institutions turning to new—and perhaps long overdue—admissions practices: closer reading of essays, a short question on the Common Application, or remote interviews rather than traditional recruiting trips.[2] For your organization, it’s a chance to leverage these deeper looks into the personality of your top candidates to inform and influence your own recruitment messaging, as you move forward. After all, your target audience will be telling you directly what their top values are: all-in-all, a remarkable opportunity to ensure you are authentically communicating the right message.

Many students cite the ephemeral “right fit” as a reason they selected a school—and this je ne sais quoi is typically discovered during a campus visit. But with only 22.5% of institutions starting fully or primarily in-person[3], how will you communicate your distinctive campus personality? (Especially when sports, social activities and residences have all been impacted?)

Most schools’ websites have featured a “virtual tour” function of some kind since last Spring. But it’s clear that institutions will need to communicate the personality and character of their school much more vividly, to truly capture prospects’ imaginations. That means, once more, novel messaging opportunities: student success stories, immersive participation in online learning, and access to actual individuals in admissions can all convey a sense of community for prospects—giving them a sneak peek into what student life really looks like, even “after COVID.”

Finally, never forget how critical it will be to ensure your institution is delivering on the current student experience—regardless of whether attendance is hybrid, virtual or in-person. Remember that your current students are your leading brand ambassadors: prospects will always find a way to talk with them, to get the insider information.

An important note: this is a time of profound cultural change, much of it more than cosmetic. So going into the admissions cycle, train yourself to avoid any customary assumptions—about your target audiences psychographics and demographics, your competitive set, even about your brand. The intense mental stress of the COVID pandemic has put many students and their parents alike through dramatic changes: their income, consideration set, and geography of choosing a college may have shifted. Take nothing for granted.

Examples abound. With research reflecting a desire to stay closer to home[4] (and out of cities), you may find that you’re competing more heavily for local students with schools down the road than you are with your traditional comp set. When planning media spends, are you looking into your site traffic data to inform any shifts in strategy? Are you scrutinizing past certain certainties? You should be.

Above all, it serves us to remember: whatever long-term changes stay with us, this moment will not be forever. Having grown up in the shadow of two tumultuous economic downturns, Gen Z are notorious as realists and pragmatists[5]. With a variety of virtual, hybrid and in-person choices, these prospects will be especially discerning about whether their tuition costs are worth the investment: therefore, again, remember to showcase the value of the unique student experience of the school.

Because even though they may continue to attend hybrid or virtual school for longer than any of us would wish, we can assume that—at some point, perhaps even 2021—the majority of incoming freshmen will attend a class in-person (fingers crossed). At which moment, we’ll really need to be prepared to deliver on our promises.