More cowbell, please: Creative enrollment responses to COVID-19


More cowbell, please: Creative enrollment responses to COVID-19

At one university where I used to work, students who make their enrollment commitment during a campus visit ring cowbells and receive a special T-shirt. It’s amazing to see how much that moment matters to families, some of whom plan the timing of their commitment just to experience that celebration. 

With the campus shut down, there won’t be any in-person cowbell ringing for a while. But my former colleagues have already made alternative plans. For this school, miniature cowbells will be mailed to every student who had a scheduled visit. When they make their commitment, they will ring the mini bells, share photos, and receive the T-shirt. 

This is just one example of the creative responses that we are seeing across the enrollment community. As our recent survey confirmed, COVID-19 is having and will continue to have a profound impact on campus. My team and I are consulting with enrollment leaders across the country to share advice on yielding their class in a radically altered recruiting environment. I’m deeply impressed by the resiliency and creativity teams are demonstrating as they contend with an unprecedented volume and diversity of urgent challenges to consider.

Swag to the rescue

Many enrollment practitioners are seeing swag items as an immediate investment to maintain connections from a distance. We are hearing admissions leaders working to identify preferred swag in their admit pools and distribute liberally. Further, some are using the inducement of swag giveaways as the incentive to register for virtual events. And don’t forget the power of a celebration box mailed to the homes of deposited students—although their graduation party may be limited to immediate family, why not enhance the moment with branded party favors, banners, and other swag?

My colleague Tom Taylor, a long-time enrollment and communications leader, agrees:

“In a world where students are hearing that other students are being forced from campus and into online classes, the more tangible we can make the connection, the better,” he says. “I’d promote things that student can wear (T-shirts and caps) over key chains and fridge magnets.”

Focusing the conversation

In ordinary times, face-to-face conversations with admissions and financial aid counselors are key to building engagement with prospective students. Now, enrollment teams are rethinking and translating that experience into virtual events, which many are already scheduling and hosting.

As students register for virtual events, there’s an opportunity to collect information and insight from them. One potential line of inquiry is to ask them their top worry about going to college. Admission counselors can then follow up with students to schedule a conversation and talk through those concerns. 

Similarly, colleges can use virtual technologies to ask students where they are on their college decision-making process with the context that most students are 80% of the way there. If their response is lower than that, counselors can spur a conversation to help get them further along. 

Ramp up content strategy

As Michael Koppenheffer’s recent post on marketing strategy pointed out, this is an important time to make sure that website content for prospective and admitted students is as good as it can be. Accordingly, we are seeing teams already revising admitted student websites and ramping up content.  In the absence of personal interactions, they feel the need get aggressive about developing and posting new content. 

One college set a goal for the amount of time they want students to spend on their site and worked backwards to brainstorm content that will drive that result.

We know that today’s high school students prefer content that is visual, authentic, and interactive. Recognizing this, some enrollment teams are employing current students who have remained on campus to create short, in the moment videos on topics of interest. Others are asking students who have left campus to record video snippets on what they love most about their college/university or what they miss most since returning home. 

Replacing in-person yield programs

Everyone we talked to is going virtual for their yield-related programming; the question is how, how well, and in what way? Most respondents don’t believe they have the capacity, nor do high school students have the attention span, to spend a whole day in a virtual admitted student program. However, since families have, in many cases, already registered for programs that are cancelled, using a portion of that time to connect with them virtually can be valuable.

Some enrollment leaders have already done the work to pinpoint the highest value activities in their face-to-face programs and taken them virtual. For example, some have indicated that one-on-one meetings with financial aid staff are key. Since these conversations are often scheduled ahead of time, turn them into Zoom meetings or phone calls. Often teams can’t accommodate all who seek to have those conversations on big event days so take the opportunity to add appointment days and times.

Similarly, most agree that seeing residence halls and rooms is a key benefit of admitted student programs. Ideally, schools already have a virtual tour that highlights residence options and can use that content. If not, or to supplement these tours, some are adding quick student-created videos that showcase individual residence hall rooms and common areas, along with their comments about why their dorm is a great dorm to choose. 

One large university will invite students to “attend” live virtual campus welcome sessions by college and then archive the recording to push out to those unable to participate. 

Schools that feature their president during the welcome, or perhaps the testimonial of a graduating senior, might broadcast that on a live social media platform and then promote the content broadly (email, text, admitted student webpage, etc.).

If individual academic programs host sessions on admitted student days, investigate whether faculty are willing and available to video a five-minute version of their content. These can be shared according to an admitted student’s potential academic interest and inventoried on the admitted student webpage.

Knowing that prospective students value the current student perspective, some colleges are setting up live social media events featuring students talking about campus life and taking questions—even if they are speaking remotely from their homes.

Leverage lead scores

We are also seeing enrollment teams take this opportunity to redirect their efforts toward things that they don’t typically have the time or scale to do, given everything they ordinarily do in person. For example, many schools have an internal formula that identifies students most likely to enroll. Some enrollment teams are working through that list of students as a team, getting strategic as a group to craft personal recruiting plans. 

I wasn’t surprised that enrollment teams are developing such creative ideas, but it was inspiring that in the face of this unprecedented global pandemic and critical university operational concerns, we found leaders who are addressing their challenges with energy, ingenuity and good grace. They are focused on doing the very best for their current students, applicant families, their institutions and their respective teams. We are buoyed by, and profoundly grateful for, their professionalism and resilience.

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