Just as enrollment teams were moving into “crunch time” to solidify their fall classes, COVID-19 struck. For a VP of enrollment, it’s difficult to imagine a worse time to close campus and halt all in-person activity. Yield events have been canceled and campus visits have ground to a halt. In a search for clarity, dozens of surveys have asked how the public health crisis and ensuing economic collapse will affect student decision-making over the coming months. Will more students enroll online? Stay closer to home? Flock to more affordable institutions? Ironically, now when we need them more than ever, our predictive models are unlikely to provide much insight.
While the long-term enrollment challenges of COVID-19 are certainly formidable, EAB’s conversations with enrollment leaders in recent weeks have returned over and over to a more immediate issue: how do we convince our admitted students to enroll during a pandemic?
In a series of virtual working groups EAB held last week, our partners discussed how the challenges they always face this time of year are more complicated now, whether it’s creating virtual yield events, communicating effectively with students, or addressing students’ growing financial concerns. But they also emphasized that the pandemic has created new opportunities for forward-thinking institutions to distinguish themselves from their competition—even with campus shuttered.
Communicate compassion and flexibility
Prospective students and their families are watching how your college handles the pandemic and judging your institution based on how they perceive you are treating current students. We’ve already seen how poor communications around refund policies can lead to swift backlash. But colleges also have an opportunity to distinguish themselves in the minds of prospects by leading through compassion, flexibility, and empathy.
- Remind students that your policies are flexible, and that your staff is here to help students work through their individual problems. Encourage prospects to get in touch and see your staff as a resource if they are struggling with an administrative requirement, worried about missing a deadline, or anxious about depositing. Remind them that these are unprecedented and unsettling times for all of us.
- Emphasize humanity over procedure. Communications should acknowledge that this is a difficult time for everyone, including students and college staff, before asking students to complete key administrative steps. One school sent all prospective students a text message, just to let them know that the school was thinking of them. The president then followed up on this communication with an email about how the campus was handling the pandemic.
- The rules of clear communication are more important than ever. With constantly evolving policies and communications from multiple sources, it pays to be clear. See our Roadmap for more.
Capitalize on free and unstructured time to build affinity with admitted students
Colleges across the country have canceled in-person events, undermining their traditional yield strategies. But with most admitted students confined to their homes, schools have an unusually captive audience who are bored and eager to imagine life post-COVID-19. Institutions making the best of these conditions shared three main principles that help them build community virtually.
- Focus on authenticity instead of production quality. Your videos and events don’t need to be as polished as normal. Students understand that these are unusual times, and they will engage more when you signal that we are all in this together.
- Empower current students, instructors, and coaches to lead virtual events. Schools are hosting virtual creative writing workshops for admitted students or asking student groups to send out short videos about their group. These activities help admitted students connect with current students and imagine life at your college.
- Leverage pre-existing content. One school told us how they searched YouTube for videos about their institution that had been posted by individual students and groups. The admissions team then curated the best of these clips for use in admitted student communications. Finding online content is a low lift for staff and can be done on an empty campus.
Proactively address financial concerns
No one can predict the full economic fallout of the pandemic, but we can almost certainly expect an increase in financial need among our incoming students next year. How can we prepare now for an influx of financial aid appeals, and how can we address student anxiety about paying for college?
Clearly communicate price and aid
See five steps to provide guidance to students at points of uncertainty.explore the roadmap
- Acknowledge the new financial reality facing many students. For example, schools that have pushed back the deposit deadline to June 1, like Oregon State University, paint the change as a way of giving families more time to assess the economic impacts of the crisis. Even simple steps can make a difference. One school sent an email to admitted students that acknowledged the impact the crisis might be having on them and their families and reminded them they could appeal their aid awards.
- Encourage financial aid staff to be active listeners. Even if your institution has limited ability to increase aid, staff can have more positive and impactful interactions with students simply by employing the principles of active listening—in short, listening patiently to a students’ circumstances and responding with empathy. Active listening is even more important during virtual sessions, where body language is harder to read.
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This year’s yield season is likely to be tough. Making your class—or, in a really difficult market, just minimizing drops in headcount—will require exceptional focus and execution. See four strategies to boost yield in an uncertain enrollment season by improving communication with your admitted students.