How the Pandemic is Changing Recruiting Practices

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When the COVID-19 crisis brought undergraduate recruitment to a sudden halt, enrollment professionals faced one big question: How can we make our class when our way of working has been taken from us? No travel, no campus visits, no admitted student days, no regional events—a dearth of the tried-and-true methods for making the student match.

Facing the loss of all the knowns, admissions teams worked through the stages of grief in record time; then they made the hard pivot to virtual recruiting. In the most challenging enrollment cycle possibly ever, the initial results look better than the imagined worst case scenarios. And hard-won lessons hint at the emergence of a new recruitment paradigm that’s long overdue.

This year, students and institutions have had to make their matches in novel ways. Our comparison of Eduventures 2019 and 2020 data shows just how many more students used remote and virtual means to assess fit (Figure 1).

Student Use of Communications with Admitting InstitutionFigure 1.

This surge in use of virtual events, texts, and live chats confirms that this past spring was a whole new world for students and institutions. This wholesale change in recruitment activity, coupled with the uncertain decision environment, has left institutions reflective about their work and thinking deeply about the future of recruitment.

We’ve checked in with admissions and enrollment teams about how they’re feeling about their fall classes. What’s striking about these conversations is that although, as always, some institutions are doing better than others, most are doing better than they expected given the circumstances – and some are just nailing it. More striking than the numbers themselves are the pride and raw emotions expressed by these teams as they work through this difficult time.

Here are a few stories of positive transformation from the field:

Texas Tech University

Jamie Hansard, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Texas Tech University (TTU) put it best, “In April, we just stopped. We didn’t know the longevity of the virus and if we’d be forced to reduce staff. We were brave. We had to think differently.” The moment forced her and her team to reevaluate all they had been doing; it gave them the “freedom to over communicate.” The university developed a response that was fast and transparent, including webinars and virtual events targeted to specific audiences, with an incredible level of collaboration between enrollment and marketing. Perhaps most impressively, the school mobilized its student workers—working from lockdown—to make 20,000 phone calls in the month of June alone.

So far, all signs are good; deposits are up 9% over this time last year thus far. The team knows that anything can happen in this strange year. But they are tremendously proud of their accomplishments.

George Mason University

The George Mason University admissions team scrambled to pull together an extremely successful virtual Spring Preview admissions event using WebEx, a model that they will use for years to come. The event used pre-recorded content, but also provided 66 WebEx rooms staffed by representatives from the university’s academic units. More than 2,000 people viewed the opening video, more than 7,000 clicked into WebEx rooms, 832 visited the financial aid room, 752 viewed the current student panel, and 637 visited the career services presentation.

“We wanted to, in the best way possible, replicate the big spring open house we usually do,” former Dean of Admissions, Amy Takayama-Perez said, “and it was great.”

Barry University

Yvette Koottungal-Brown, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Barry University, stressed the importance of the collaboration between enrollment, marketing, and IT in facing the recruitment challenges. These strong partnerships were necessary to design, build, and launch solutions quickly. Koottungal-Brown also focused her team on creatively designing events from the ground up with the requirement that engagement tracking be a critical feature of any event or activity they devised.

“Without the benefit of the face-to-face interaction, we need to refine our ability to really gauge interest and propensity to enroll,” said Koottungal.

These are just a few examples of the many positive experiences institutions have had. Let’s not forget that they have suffered the loss of the physical campus and the physical campus community as key actors in student recruitment. If and when these connections are reestablished, how will the lessons institutions are learning be incorporated into a new model of student recruitment?

Emerging Recruitment

Let’s imagine a time when we are not stalked by this virus and enrollment practices achieve a new equilibrium. The ability to help students assess fit can be vastly enhanced by the lessons learned during this COVID-19 yield season. Here are some things we see emerging from our conversations with clients.

It’s Transparency, not Over-Communication

Institutions have long worried about “over communicating” with students. Instead, let’s think about what we want students to know, when we want students to know it, and be upfront, honest and transparent about it. It seems students are content with this approach—it's slick marketing at which they recoil.

Focused Virtual Content & Events are Here to Stay

Institutions were forced to think about their campus visit or admitted student day content in discrete areas and provide it in bite-sized pieces for students and families. Breaking out of this structural restriction of physical events was a real win.

Pride in Creativity

Being able to free your admissions team from the tyranny of “because we’ve always done it that way” has engendered tremendous professional pride. It’s also created some real solutions for institutions searching for new ways to reach students. Freeing enrollment teams from the need for perfect execution allowed for bursts of creativity that often surpassed expectations.

Tight Collaborations Between Enrollment & Marketing

The COVID-19 crisis demonstrates the value of having tightly collaborative admissions, marketing, and social media teams. Everyone has to be on the same page about what is going on with student communications strategies every day. If your organization has difficulties with these collaborations, consider a realignment to make them work more seamlessly.

Reliable Technology, not Fancy Technology

When institutions had to pivot to virtual recruiting tactics, they didn’t need virtual reality or other such high-end technology. They needed to make sure they could get out consistent and complex email and social campaigns, create and develop webinars, text students, call students, and host a good virtual visit. The solution to recruitment problems wasn’t about seeking shiny new tools, but about identifying and using essential tools in creative ways.

Building Enrollment through a True Engagement Strategy

Now more than ever, a solid enrollment plan bears the hallmark of a robust student engagement plan. This underlying philosophy of enrollment management is far less about micromanaging the numbers and far more about taking care of the process by engaging students so that the outcome—enrollment—will take care of itself. At a time of social distancing, schools have managed to stimulate interest and nurture student engagement far beyond the usual. Somewhat ironically, this class of 2020 is the most “cared for” enrollment class ever. Shouldn’t this be the standard of engagement for all enrollment classes?

In the old days—six months ago—many would have argued that the campus visit was absolutely central to recruiting students, necessary to seal the deal. Much of our research has supported this over the years. Well, COVID-19 ran that argument over with a bus and rolled it right into the ditch. What do you think the new paradigm of recruiting is going to look like?


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Eduventures Principal Analyst at ACT | NRCCUA

Thursday, August 13, 2020 at 3PM ET/2PM CT

The annual CHLOE (Changing Landscape of Online Education) survey chronicles the evolution of online policies and practices in U.S. higher education, from the perspective of Chief Online Officers (COOs). The fifth CHLOE survey captures leadership reflections on the pandemic-induced emergency remote instruction in the spring: what happened, what worked, and implications for fall. The CHLOE 5 report is published amid a coronavirus spike that is persuading many colleges and universities to re-think their fall re-opening plans.

This webinar will distill lessons from the spring and, in conversation with a panel of online leaders, gauge early fall realities. Online infrastructure, experience and leadership played a pivotal role in enabling schools to see through the last academic year, but many leaders have been quick to draw a distinction between hastily assembled “remote instruction” and true online learning. As fall 2020 gets underway, and schools face a yet stiffer test, online leaders are stepping up once again. Robust, engaging, high quality remote learning, by whatever name and whether or not combined with a socially distanced campus, will define this one-of-a-kind semester.

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