A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal published an article by Melissa Korn, Douglas Belkin, and Juliet Chung, entitled, “Coronavirus Pushes Colleges to the Breaking Point, Forcing ‘Hard Choices’ About Education.” It’s a compelling read despite being a bit bleak, and if you haven’t read the piece, I encourage you to do so. 

The reality is that schools are starting to close. Many were teetering on the edge of closure even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and may have very well closed regardless of the current issue, but as the article points out, there are hundreds more that will have financial flaws exposed and follow suit as a result.

The article notes that, “Every Source of funding is in doubt. Schools face tuition shortfalls because of unpredictable enrollment and market-driven endowment losses. Public institutions are digesting steep budget cuts, while families are questioning whether it’s worth paying for a private school if students will have to take classes online, from home.” It goes on to explain that schools have a tendency to invest in buildings and state of the art science centers, the likes of which are currently unusable and potentially putting schools at financial risk. 

Robert Zemesky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, has been doing research and released a book in February titled The College Stress Test. He predicted that 10% of the nation’s private, liberal-arts colleges are likely to close in the next five years, and after recent events, he has upped his prediction to a staggering 20% to close within the next year alone.

According to the American Council of Education, schools are predicted to see a 15% decrease in enrollment in the fall of 2020, and a $45 billion decrease in revenue from tuition, room and board, and other services. Many elite and well known universities with incredible endowments have announced hiring freezes, as well as budget cuts for nonessential items, while schools with smaller endowments face even graver realities. In response to this, many competitive institutions are lowering admissions standards, waiving standardized test results, and will be competing for a different student type they normally would not have been interested in. This ripple effect alone will affect everyone.

So what do we do? How do we respond? How do we weather this storm?

I have to admit that my heart sank reading these statistics. But as a former enrollment manager, I know that feeling sorry and worrying will not lead to successful results. Now is the time to be creative and innovative and doing so quite honestly may mean the success or failure of institutions around the country. Here are few ideas of what we can be doing to combat these uncertain times.

  • Cancel the idea of Traditional Recruitment: Traditional college fairs and school visits will most likely not be happening, which means that generating new inquiries is going to be quite challenging. As you start to prepare for this next recruiting cycle, virtual events and partnering with school districts, schools and other places in the community will be more important than ever. Lead generation is challenging to begin with, so think about how to generate quality leads. The upside to this is that you may only get qualified leads, which removes some of the noise.
  • Virtual Events: Being able to host a student on campus was the bread and butter for most institutions. Now, we have to take things online and go virtual. Choosing the right platform and thinking through what the event looks like will truly change what the experience is like for students and parents alike.
    • Faculty and Staff-hosted events: One way to move a traditional on-campus event online is to choose a platform that allows you to do a primary session first, and then break out into smaller sessions. We’ve also seen schools break out events to be major-specific, and create corresponding micro events.
    • Student-hosted Facebook and Instagram live sessions: We know that students sell an institution better than any staff or faculty member can, so what better way to bring the experience to students than having an open dialogue with current students about their experiences? We suggest using a social media platform for this to make it more casual and accessible, rather than the more professional platform like Zoom, GoToMeeting or Google Hangouts, which can be reserved for staff or faculty-hosted events.
  • Send “Experience” Kits: Think of the admitted student packages that get sent out at schools like the University of Oregon, Western Governors University, and Pepperdine University, where an admitted or deposited student gets a little welcome kit containing items specific to the school, like stickers, chapstick, beach towel, etc. Could this concept be translated to fit the prospective student experience? Temple University got creative and mailed inexpensive VR goggles to prospective students so that they could “see” campus.
  • Communication is key: Now more than ever, you need a very specific, dynamic, and tailored marketing approach. Segment and think through what that approach is, and how often you’re sending emails, so that you aren’t just contributing to the noise.
  • Subject Lines: They’ve always been important, but you may want to use subject lines that are straight to the point and hit the heart of the email to increase open rates.
  • Care Authentically: Simply adding a line like “I hope you and your family are doing well” to bulk emails may actually do more hard than good if not done in an authentic way. Look at what you’re saying and how you’re saying it to make sure it feels genuine. Caring for students is important; make sure it’s not just a throwaway line.
  • Leverage data: Data is always our friend, but now is not the time for guessing. Make sure your data is clean, and being looked at on a daily basis. This is the only way to truly see and predict where you are and where you’re going in uncertain times.
  • Application fees and admissions standards: This may be the perfect time to waive an application fee or remove barriers as families have most likely been financially impacted by everything going on. Now is also a good time to re-think about your admissions standards. Do you need to adjust them in light of what some Ivy and elite schools are doing? Are there obstacles that you can take away, like standardized tests? 
  • Plan ahead: Do not waste this summer. Make sure to spend enough time prepping for this new recruiting cycle, not just on yielding current class. Both are essential to the success of a school.
  • Leverage faculty resources: Can you involve faculty or staff with recruiting? Can you stream a lecture for prospective students to sit in on? Could you work with your feeder high school to have faculty be guest lecturers for online courses, giving you more exposure? Also, in regards to enrollment and retention, faculty are the key feelers and sensors within your current student population. Leverage surveys and collect feedback on how students are feeling and interacting on a day to day basis, and make sure that data is being collected and reported to administration, then acted on.
  • Remember that parents are important: Engaging with parents is equally important, especially right now, when safety is a top concern. Build a parent communication plan or host virtual parent info nights to make them feel more comfortable and in the loop about what’s going on.
  • Recruit locally: Many students wonder if they’ll be going to a college campus this fall, and many may even be looking for local alternatives. Regional campaigns to your prospective and even accepted students could yield huge results.
  • Vendors can help: If you haven’t done so already, it may be worth reaching out to your vendors and seeing what they have been seeing and hearing on campuses. They have a unique perspective working with schools and may be able to provide valuable insight.
  • Assess budgets and reallocate: Since travel budgets aren’t being used, can those funds be moved to support technology? Can you use that budget to send care packages for events? We recently released an article about the CARES Act, analyzing what it means and how it can help best serve students. While it’s not going to solve immediate enrollment problems, you might be able to get creative with money from grant funding that can now go into your recruitment efforts.
  • SAT and ACT List Buying and Tests Optional: With schools all over the country going test optional, and SAT and ACT tests being cancelled, list buying will not be the way that it once was. This provides an opportunity to reallocate funds that may have gone to SAT/ACT purchase lists, and also requires schools to get more creative on lead generation and pipe building as mentioned above.

This list just scratches the surface of creative and innovative ideas we’ve seen schools come up with, and we’re excited to see what other creative ideas come out of this. Remember that challenging times allow for creativity and nimbleness. Don’t let this season crush you; instead, allow it to be a catalyst for enhancing and improving the student experience, technology, and recruiting approaches.