Colleges get a crash course in digital recruiting during the pandemic

by Emma


Angel Pérez, head of the top college admissions association, got an email in the fall after his group sponsored its first-ever online fair, which the pandemic made virtual by necessity. A student thanked Pérez, writing that they’d been exposed to institutions they wouldn’t have otherwise. 

It was an “aha!” moment for Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. To him, it was evidence that although many hallmarks of the college recruitment cycle had been absent for months, the options arising in their place were generally more accessible. 

A slew of largely digital recruitment tactics have emerged from the turbulence of the health crisis, shaking a college enrollment landscape that was already evolving. Colleges were anticipating a drop-off in high school graduates. And under pressure from the Justice Department, NACAC in 2019 loosened its recruitment guidelines, weakening the significance of historical admissions deadlines and giving institutions license to poach students past those dates.

Enrollment professionals expect long-term recruitment plans will fuse new digital tools with the mainstays. They are quick to note, though, that nothing will replace the personal touch of a student connecting with a professor on a tour or falling in love with campus. And while social media can enable them to cast a wider net, the digital divide persists and was exacerbated by the pandemic. Institutions also must understand the nuances of platforms like Twitter and video-sharing service TikTok to get the results they want.

But Pérez knows one thing is certain: “The digitization of this process is here to stay.”

A new online frontier

The coronavirus hit the college admissions cycle at a particularly inopportune time. Students generally pick their colleges by May 1, and a push to woo them defines the preceding months. Institutions were not only attempting to meet their enrollment benchmarks, which the pandemic made much more unstable, but they were also grappling with deep auxiliary revenue shortfalls

Colleges widely took their recruiting virtual. Tours and welcome days were translated into online formats. Social media strategies were rethought. 

NACAC hasn’t yet quantified how prevalent such tactics were, but its latest State of College Admission report notes that enrollment officials consider hosting campus visits to be one of the most important methods of connecting with first-time freshmen. These were by and large impossible to host in the early months of the crisis as areas went into lockdown.

“They’ve relied on that college visit to turn applicants into enrolled students,” said Sara Harberson, author of the book “Soundbite: The Admissions Secret That Gets You Into College and Beyond,” which publishes in April, and a former admissions professional at the University of Pennsylvania and Franklin & Marshall College. 

NACAC instead converted its traditional college fair into a virtual one in September, drawing 30,000 students, Pérez said. There, they could venture into online “rooms” where college representatives would present information about their schools. Admissions officials might have conversations with individual students or give a group an overview of campus, he said. NACAC is continuing its online fairs, with some specific to regions or interests, such as STEM or the arts.

Colleges are rethinking the campus tour, too. Although many filmed these excursions pre-pandemic for students to watch online, more have also started hosting live-streamed versions, Harberson said. 

Student ambassadors are also popular in admissions, selling prospective students on the magic of college and answering questions from an on-the-ground perspective. Institutions brought these students into Zoom rooms, sometimes along with faculty and even governing board members, who weren’t likely to participate in recruiting before the crisis, Pérez said.

Although digital events can reach more students, some are still left out without reliable access to the internet and devices. But Pérez expects the popularity of these online exchanges means NACAC and colleges will keep them going following the health crisis.

Reaching students

For now, many students remain isolated and “hungry” for interaction, said Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at consultancy EAB. So keen are they for contact that some legacy outreach methods that might not have even been considered before the crisis — like calling students directly  are working, she said.

This is part of the hypercompetitive environment the pandemic fostered, Rhyneer said. 

Colleges are trying more fervently to cater to prospective students’ needs as an acknowledgement of their struggles and to fill seats. This might involve being available for digital appointments on the fly or setting them up at odd hours, a trend she expects will persist.

“There’s a return to a much more personal approach that’s very targeted to this generation,” Rhyneer said. “They want to know, you’re talking to me, not 300 other people.”

A personalized touch is evident at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts. Andrew Palumbo, the assistant vice president for enrollment management and dean of admissions and financial aid, said his institution has tried to account for barriers, such as by permanently nixing its $70 application fee. The college’s financial aid officers also have standing time slots available to answer questions online, Palumbo said. And the college made sure its digital recruitment programming  webinars, panels  was available to students in as many time zones as possible.     

The college incurred new costs: a platform for digital content, web development and an increase in video production and closed captioning to ensure its accessibility, he said. 

Savings came from not holding events or traveling, but the institution also ended up with “unbudgeted” expenses: little perks like T-shirts and lawn signs announcing the class of 2024’s enrollment decisions. Palumbo didn’t specify how much money the college spent.

“There’s a return to a much more personal approach that’s very targeted to this generation. They want to know, you’re talking to me, not 300 other people.”

Madeleine Rhyneer

Vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management, EAB

Though institutions, particularly admissions offices, tend to be cash-strapped, Palumbo hopes they will figure out how to pay for a blend of online and conventional recruitment tactics. Having many virtual methods of recruitment also alleviates some of the grueling travel admissions officials undertake.

WPI’s system isn’t perfect at bridging the digital dive, he said. “But this really increases the amount of schools we can ‘stop’ at,” Palumbo said. “We don’t have to use that time to travel. We can be in California, we can be in Oklahoma. … It’s a great opportunity to recruit students who desperately need college support this year.”

Barriers remain

Once applicants are aware of a school, they need help navigating the admissions process, which is especially true during the pandemic. In a jarring twist for some students, most four-year institutions have discontinued entrance exam requirements for those starting in fall 2021. Several high-profile institutions, including Cornell, Columbia and Harvard universities, have already extended their test-optional policies. 

But applicants aren’t completely buying the idea that they don’t need to take the tests  to the point that NACAC called on institutions to publicly affirm they won’t penalize students who don’t provide scores. Most colleges that did away with the tests for a time prior to the pandemic haven’t reverted back

Also, the traditional deadlines for picking a school are becoming less rigid. This can be a positive development, Pérez noted, as it gives students and families more time to plan for college. 

But he is also concerned colleges will use flashy incentives to get students to commit to enrolling earlier than usual, which he said could prematurely curtail their college searches. This was notoriously attempted at North Carolina’s High Point University in 2019, when administrators dangled priority housing, course scheduling, prime parking and early move-in slots for students who applied and committed early there.

However, Harberson, the former admissions leader, said students and families could benefit from being able to press for perks such as more merit aid, especially in light of the economic instability. 

Colleges must also find ways to stand out to students amid the onslaught of marketing they’re exposed to, said Julian Vasquez Heilig, professor and dean of the University of Kentucky’s College of Education. 

Applicants don’t want digitized versions of stereotypical brochures showing students throwing a frisbee on a sunlit knoll, Vasquez Heilig said. They want to see colleges telling important stories, he noted, especially in light of movements like the fight for racial justice that was reinvigorated last summer. Vasquez Heilig cited the university’s civil rights and education initiative with the NAACP as an example of the type of program to promote among prospective students. 

He said that partnership could have appealed to applicants like those entering the College of Education, many of whom are interested in correcting racial injustices. The university’s attempts to bring in those students appear to be working. The College of Education admitted 600 students two years ago, and it’s up 200 more this academic year, he said. 

It will be key for colleges to hire staff who will prioritize this type of work, and to take the time to grasp the subtleties of the different digital platforms, Vasquez Heilig said. TikTok is meant to be more creative, and often lighter and humorous, he noted, while Twitter is more of a straightforward communication tool. 

“How do you create content for that platform? How do you work with their algorithms? It takes a lot of sophistication,” he said. “We have a limited amount of time to appeal to these students, so we have to be very strategic.”


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