As a higher education leader, you’re determined to persevere and guide your institution through the challenging circumstances associated with COVID-19. This requires you to have a deep understanding of how the pandemic — and all its aftermath — is impacting the mindset of your prospective students. Their previous motivations, concerns, influences and obstacles that you’ve become so familiar with have evolved. And your marketing and enrollment strategies need to adjust accordingly.

“Now is the time to assess your marketing messages and media mix, and be very mindful of the needs of your prospective students,” advises Brad Frank, chief marketing officer at Collegis Education. “Align your efforts to support what they need during this time of uncertainty.”

You should never compromise your institutional mission and values, but there are ways to adjust your approach to address the new circumstances your prospective students are facing.

5 things to know about today’s college-going high school graduates

As experts in the higher education industry, we at Collegis have been keeping close tabs on the fluctuating feelings of prospective undergraduate students — and the corresponding implications for institutions.

It’s important to note that new surveys and reports are constantly being conducted and results are still in flux. But there are a few early trends that appear to be solid indicators of what your prospective freshmen are thinking during this time. Keep these student priorities in mind when rethinking your marketing and enrollment strategies.

1. They’re looking to stay closer to home

The pandemic has many students having second thoughts about their ideal college location. According to a survey by Cirkled In, more than one-fourth of respondents say that COVID-19 has them reconsidering their original plans.

Whether motivations are driven by changes in financial situation or family dynamics, it seems that students are more inclined to stay close to home. Attending in-state colleges or community colleges nearby will allow them to be near their family if the pandemic enters another wave with a similar force. With this in mind, schools should consider focusing their marketing and enrollments efforts closer to home.

2. They’re more focused on finances

Financial concerns have always been on the forefront for prospective students, and COVID-19 has only magnified this. One poll conducted by Art & Science Group reveals that 52 percent of students had a parent or guardian lose their job, get laid off or become furloughed as a result of the pandemic. This has obvious financial implications on a family’s ability to fund higher education at this time. This is one of the key contributing factors to students rethinking their college plans.

Students also expect tuition costs to be adjusted if on-campus classes have to be altered in the fall. The same poll reports more than two-thirds of students believe they should be paying much less in tuition and fees if online instruction becomes mandatory in the fall. The bottom line is that incoming freshmen expect to pay a fraction of the price if they’re getting only a fraction of the campus experience.

3. They still have their hearts set on residential programs

Current college students had no choice but to complete their courses online this past spring when COVID-19 caused campuses closures across the country. The quality of online instruction varied vastly from school to school, and many students were disappointed in their overall experience.

But incoming college students have the opportunity to choose their desired modality upfront. Even with the possible threat of the pandemic still looming, the majority of traditional undergraduate prospects aren’t willing to abandon the on-campus experience they’ve always envisioned. The Art & Science Group poll shows that 59 percent of respondents have no interest in enrolling in an online degree program.

4. They’re considering alternative options until things stabilize

Financial concerns coupled with the desire for on-campus courses have some high school students revaluating their fall plans altogether. It seems that the more time passes, the more students are warming up to the idea delaying their enrollment or taking a gap year.

According to the Art & Science Group poll, 17 percent of students who were planning on attending a four-year institution have changed their plans due to COVID-19. Here is a breakdown of some of the most common alternative plans these respondents noted:

  • Enroll in a part-time bachelor’s program: 34%
  • Wait until Spring 2021 to enroll in full-time bachelor’s program: 17%
  • Take a gap year: 16%
  • Enroll in associate’s degree program or community college: 16%

Even if you can’t convince these prospects to change their minds about this fall, it’s worth taking a look at your transfer credit policies. Allowing a bit more flexibility could help encourage them to fulfill their on-campus wishes at a later date once you’re able to resume normal operations again.

5. They’re craving more communications from potential colleges

High school students have typically grumbled about schools reaching out too often. But those navigating their college decision process amidst COVID-19 are actually craving more updates. Carnegie Dartlet surveyed 5,000 high school seniors about their communication preferences from schools they’re considering. When asked about all the ways they prefer schools connect with them, 89% said via email and 62% said via text.

When asked about how often they’d prefer to hear from colleges and universities in the coming months, 60 percent said one to two times per week. This shows that in a time of such uncertainty, students are looking for institutions to help them navigate their next steps.

Knowing this, schools should consider ramping up their communication efforts during the summer. Find creative ways to give prospects a taste of your institution. This can be done with virtual campus tours, online course simulations or live video chats with a faculty member or current student.

Evolving your approach

Once you’ve researched how your prospective student’s mindset has shifted, you need to determine how those attitudes should influence your current strategy. As Frank stresses, it’s important to adhere to your institutional values.

“Be true to your brand and relevant to the time,” Frank says. “If you pivot too far, prospective students will notice.”

That said, don’t expect to rely solely on your tried-and-true methods. You’ll need to get creative in response to what your potential students need. Frank believes the most effective way to reach and engage them during this time is through the integration of marketing, admissions and technology. Keep these teams in lock step to ensure prospects aren’t receiving disjointed information.

“Now, more than ever, it will be important to break down internal silos to build a cohesive strategy across these three key areas of your institution,” Frank urges.

Forge ahead with confidence

In your years of experience in higher education, it’s safe to say you’ve never faced a year like this. Understanding the dynamic needs of your prospective students during this season of uncertainty is more important than ever.

Let our experts help you find the solutions to your student experience, technology and admissions challenges.

Author: Callie Malvik

Callie Malvik is a Senior Content Manager with Collegis Education. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Mass Communication and Advertising from Winona State University, Minn.