At most colleges, admissions teams feel like they’ve honed their outreach strategy to a near science. These professionals know when and how purchased lists will perform and which tactics they will use to engage with those students after they apply. They have always visited the same high schools and college fairs with a pretty good understanding of the number of contacts and applications they will receive in each area of their region.
At least they used to. COVID-19 has upended a process that has a long history at most schools.
The pandemic has not only disrupted plans for the current academic year, but also the one beginning in 2021. With no clear consensus among public health officials on when we can expect a return to normalcy, reverting to traditional recruitment tactics isn’t feasible.
“The biggest challenge right now is figuring out how to reach students in an impactful way and differentiate yourself from other schools,” says Patrick Green, senior director of enrollment strategy at Collegis Education.
This new reality means college admissions teams need to take a different approach to outreach, and it’s possible this change could actually open up new opportunities. But virtual recruitment and communication must be refined to have success in engaging these new students. Alternatives to the in-person experiences that are often used to connect with prospective students must be dynamic and professionally delivered.
Find alternatives to traditional in-person events
For admissions teams, the most obvious disruption to normal operations is the lack of in-person opportunities to meet students. Health experts are discouraging people from venturing too far from home, and some states even have mandated travel restrictions. With trips to other locations largely off limits, traditional recruitment tactics like campus visits, college fairs and high school visits are unlikely to resume in the immediate future.
The good news is some events translate to the digital world quite well, such as virtual college fairs. These events provide a platform for prospects and institutions to connect. Students simply create an itinerary by selecting which schools they’d like to learn about, log on and attend their chosen sessions. The National Association for College Admission Counselling (NACAC) hosts numerous virtual college fairs that you might want to consider.
Institutions will also need to identify ways to engage with high schools, particularly the ones from which many current students and alumni graduated. One option is to reach out to guidance counselors directly to discuss options. It’s also wise to be on the lookout for virtual events that are designed to connect college admissions counselors with high school guidance counselors like the one NACAC recently hosted.
Other options for replicating face-to-face events include virtual tours and self-hosted webinars. Both of these tactics allow students to gain more in-depth information about your institution, which is critical as they progress in their journey. Just be mindful of leaning too heavily on materials that are filmed in advance.
“There’s something to be said for a special event that students have to sign up for and participate in,” Green explains. “You absolutely need recorded materials, but there should also be something specific that allows one-on-one interaction.”
For many institutions, thorough admissions staff training will prove essential for executing any type of virtual session. Make sure you’re giving your team members the tools they need to run a successful event. That should include providing education on good presentation skills, using informational and professional-looking content and how to follow up with students afterward.
Seek new ways of reaching students
Further complicating the recruitment picture, student lists compiled by ACT and the College Board are becoming less valuable. This can be attributed in part to many schools doing away with testing requirements, but also the fact that COVID-19 complications prevented many students from taking the ACT or SAT in 2020. Instead of relying on such lists, college admissions teams need to be smarter about how they’re identifying prospective students. In many cases, this is going to require leveraging data and expanding to different communication channels.
“A 17-year-old doesn’t necessarily want to get on the phone with you,” Green says. “They just want to interact on their own, so you need to meet them there and engage with them on their level.”
As for how you go about reaching students on their terms, there are a number of options. One tactic that was gaining traction even before COVID-19 was introducing a chatbot to the website that can help students ask questions and navigate to useful resources on their own time. Most schools will also need to ramp up their social media presence. And understand that some of these outreach methods really hinge on collaborating with the marketing team, faculty members and even current students. Consider having student ambassadors participate in Instagram takeovers or create videos for a YouTube series about their life at your school.
Including different voices from across the institution could be incredibly effective as well. One recent survey that polled nearly 1,600 rising high school seniors shows that while prospects are most interested in speaking to admissions counselors, they also want to be in contact with current students, school administration and faculty members.
More traditional communication methods – emails, text messages, phone calls – will remain important as well, and they should be frequent. While there’s a tendency to want to avoid burdening students with too much communication, it’s unlikely that any institution is going to reach that threshold while there’s still so much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. A SimpsonScarborough survey compiled near the end of March reveals that 40 percent of graduating seniors felt that they needed more information than they were receiving from the institutions they were interested in attending. This requires a shift in thinking for most admissions teams.
“Traditional undergraduate institutions, for the most part, have always waited for applications to come in before doing the bulk of their communication,” Green explains.
“Schools should start being more assertive upfront and do more outreach to try and persuade students to apply,” he adds.
Staff training is, once again, essential for executing an effective outreach strategy. Admissions team members will increasingly find they need to try new things and expand the way they think about their roles. They’ll need guidance on how to navigate difficult conversations in a way that leaves students feeling empowered to take the next step. Admissions staff will also benefit from training on monitoring social media, engaging with student ambassadors and how to be more proactive about their outreach tactics.
Adjust expectations to align with the current climate
It’s impossible to discuss admissions work without mentioning goals. Some institutions might feel they can expect a huge influx of students for fall 2021 with both recent graduates and gap-year students enrolling at the same time, but that’s far from assured. While enrollment growth is on everyone’s minds, it’s important to remain realistic.
“It’s about maintaining reasonable expectations, but also paying attention to how students are converting,” Green advises. “That means really watching the key performance indicators [KPIs] through the funnel. What are the application rates, completion rates and admit rates relative to previous years and your stated goals?”
Lastly, admissions staff will have to make sure they’re aligned with the institution’s stance on taking a gap year. Many schools are devising ways to introduce prospects to the institution in a way that can help convince them to attend in subsequent years – the admissions team needs appropriate knowledge of these initiatives. If you truly prioritize high-quality training for your staff, they may be able to navigate those conversations in a way that ultimately helps students feel more confident that continuing their education is the right choice.
Embrace a new era of admissions outreach
There’s no way to deny that COVID-19 is presenting admissions teams with a scenario they’ve never encountered before. Despite the challenges ahead, effectively engaging with prospective students is still possible. It requires creative thinking, altering traditional outreach tactics and a commitment to developing an excellent admissions staff.
Focusing on supporting and empowering your team is particularly important, because it will prove beneficial for years to come. Find out how you can drive your team toward success by visiting our article “Six Best Practices for Managing Your Admissions Team.”