Most higher education leaders have been trying to figure out the “silver bullet” to address retention and persistence issues long before a global pandemic rocked the landscape. Moving the needle one way or the other on student retention can drastically alter an institution’s direct revenue. For small, independent schools like Evangel University, engaging students and ensuring their return next semester is more important than ever.
Traditional undergraduate institutions thrive because of the unique experience students get. You spend four years earning a degree, sure; but it’s more than that. The on-campus experience – everything from bad cafeteria food to chats in the residence hall at 2:00 am, the traditions and the camaraderie – all of these small things add up to keep students engaged outside of the classroom, adding to their decision to return semester after semester.
How does an institution continue cultivating that kind of culture when everything is suddenly different? “It’s hard to have student activities without students,” says Christy Rowden, Director of Student Activities.
When COVID-19 hit, Evangel extended their spring break by a week, allowing time for professors to transition some 800+ classes online. No small feat for an institution with a very small online footprint. With state and local recommendations changing daily, campus administration scrambled to make decisions first about housing and class modalities. It was a priority to ensure every student was contacted and cared for so staff and faculty made phone calls to every Evangel family. As things settled, they looked further out: making plans to move graduation out to August, shifting the timeline for President Taylor’s retirement, and creating all kinds of contingency plans.
Despite the incredible upheaval, the community is thriving and, based on housing deposits and the number of students registered for fall classes, all signs point to positive and healthy student retention for this upcoming fall term. Christy believes this is in large part because Evangel just continued being Evangel.
They’ve found creative and fun ways to engage students outside the classroom. Resident Assistants have continued to meet with the students from their residence hall via Zoom calls and campus ministries streamed chapel services online for students to enjoy and discuss. They’ve conducted planned events like Mr. EU on Instagram, held elections for the student body president, and showcased a variety of projects that had already been completed for spring festivities. “We are going to honor our people, honor our traditions, and honor the work that’s already been put in,” said Rowden. “This is just going to make being together again that much sweeter.”
While COVID-19 continues to send shockwaves through the country, there are many more unknowns for higher education. While care for current students seems to be under control, minds and administrations are shifting toward new student enrollment, not just for the fall but for semesters to come. The effects will be far-reaching. Combining the same care and attention to prospective students that they’ve displayed to current Crusaders will be key for Evangel. Coupled with changes in their process and technology stack, they are confident good things will come. Chris Belcher, VP for Enrollment Management noted “we are getting ready to make better use of the tools we have – using the TargetX Events Module to schedule our virtual webinars and events across departments (admissions, financial aid and academics). All of our events and communication tools will be integrated with the scheduler [making it as easy as possible for students and stakeholders across campus to connect].”
Whether it’s bringing new students into the fold or continuing to serve and retain the ones they have – the same sentiment echoes across campus, “our mission is still our mission, we are just shifting how we go about it.”