Everything’s up in the air. Where will students land?

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Over the past couple of weeks, the tide has shifted optimistically toward plans for an on-campus fall semester. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, 68% of colleges now say this is their intent.

At the same time, we’ve also learned that the California State University System, the largest in the country, will be staying 100% online, and, that many schools planning in-person semesters privately worry about the availability of tests, the logistics of social distancing, and their legal liability.

As uncertainty settles in, our COVID-19 Student Impact Survey reveals how painful the loss of the traditional freshman year experience could be for students. How might this possibility strain the already tenuous student-institution relationship? And how can institutions work to mitigate this now?

Our survey asked students to tell us in their own words about their concerns surrounding COVID-19 and their transition from high school to college.

What's the biggest concern you have about the impact of COVID-19 on your journey from high school to college?

"I always just thought I had a plan and knew what was ahead of me… I am worried that now I won't be able to live on campus at the start of the year and that classes will start online. I really wanted to have a real first day of college."

"There are a lot of growth opportunities that I will be missing out on. Transitioning to adulthood will be more difficult than ever with lack of interaction and experience… It will limit my ability to get into the real world and personally develop relationships and myself."

"I'm worried about graduating on time and how I'm supposed to register for classes soon. I'm worried about the unresolved issues I have with my financial aid as well… I also really don't want to be forced to take online classes, as I need the teacher to be in person."

"I am worried that … the first year of college will be online classes. I do not want to pay full tuition to be taking classes from my bedroom."

Source: Eduventures COVID-19 Senior Impact Survey


It’s crystal clear that . This is further captured in the data when we look at the hierarchy of concerns students have about COVID-19 and college choice. They are overwhelmingly concerned about potential changes in their financial situations and the impact of illness in their families. When it comes to actual college enrollment, it’s a delay that is on their minds more so than choice (Figure 1).


As you think about your college choice during this uncertain time, which of the following are you concerned about?Figure 1.


The deeper read of the open comments shows students articulating a concern about a fundamentally changed educational product: I thought I was buying “traditional college” and now it appears I am buying “online college.”

Certainly, institutions are sensitive to this. The California State University (CSU) decision is not an easy decision for any institution, but CSU has consistently overenrolled in recent history. For institutions that have struggled with enrollment, however, this fall decision carries existential weight.

We’ve talked to many institutions that are deep into scenario planning for the fall. You’ll notice that even among the 68% of colleges that are “planning an in-person semester,” those plans are carefully equivocal. While the majority of institutions are optimistically moving toward in-person fall semesters, they are doing so with the caveat that the plan may be scuttled at any time by authorities who deem public health conditions unsafe.  

Regardless of the overwhelming desire and optimism for in-person classes in the fall, reality may dictate that institutions have a completely remote or socially-distanced hybrid experience for students—this is not what students bargained for.

If the worst case scenario comes to pass, what will your institution do to close the gap between students’ college dreams and the perception of what might await them this fall? Here are some of our thoughts.

Start by solving the problem in front of you.

Your scenario planning around an online semester or hybrid semester must give equal weight to academic and non-academic concerns of incoming students. Students perceive their experience as so much more than their coursework. Your institution obviously won’t be able to deliver the full experience. But what essential experiences, in addition to academics, can it begin to deliver on?

Recognize short-term versus long-term thinking.

Because you are an adult and can see beyond the next six months, you understand that a semester is just a semester and the full value of your institution’s education stretches out over a much longer time scale. But teenagers need help to see beyond the here and now. In the event of the need for fall online, you should stress the role of this semester within the context of the overall education they will receive. This is just a bump in the road, or a novel start to a rich journey with tried-and-true results.

Address the lure of the mythical gap year.

Institutions are worried that students may decide to forego the online experience and do something they perceive as more productive with their time. It’s up to you to convince them that the set of experiences you are curating will enrich them in ways they never could have imagined. After all, even those who had planned for one will have trouble building a meaningful gap year experience when there are few jobs and an inability to travel widely. Wouldn’t it be better to spend this time with your institution? Better yet, can your fall semester have some elements of a gap year?

Supercharge your melt strategy.

Finally, assume that every deposited student is at risk. You worked hard to convince students that you are the right choice. But in the back of their minds, they worry the product may have changed. Steady and steadfast communication is key. Take every opportunity to remind students that the core values of your institution are fundamentally the same. The upcoming semester might look a little bit different, but the long-term value of your education is unchanged as it adjusts to changing times.


For further reading on this topic, see Eduventures Insights Report, Reimagining the College Experience in a Pandemic.

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Research on your admitted students can provide enrollment leaders insight into why students enrolled in their institution -- and perhaps more importantly, why they didn’t --  but without benchmarks, an institution can only understand its result in isolation. 

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