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By: Steve Lannen

From On-Campus to Onscreen: The Virtual Reality of College Tours

Colleges are turning to virtual tours and many other digital experiences to make up for lost campus visits.

Admissions /
By: Steve Lannen

9 minutes

Other than a few glorious autumn days, the final weeks of the spring term are when college campuses look their best in many parts of the nation. That has traditionally made this a great time to host admitted high school seniors weighing their final college choices – colleges put on a show, students picture themselves there, and next year’s entering class takes shape.  

eCity Interactive - Higher Ed Digital Marketing AgencyBut not this year. The Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to thrust their remaining classes online and cancel the usual spring recruiting events and visits. These cancellations denied institutions their best opportunity to showcase themselves, and also cost them the ability to project the yield for this coming fall’s first-year class. 

Admissions counselors suddenly found themselves rebuilding the admissions cycle and figuring out ways to connect with and recruit students they couldn’t host on campus and whose plans for fall are increasingly in question. 

An April survey by SimpsonScarborough reported 20 percent of high school seniors believe they likely will not attend college in the fall due to issues caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The same survey said 24 percent of decided high school seniors may change their mind about what school they ultimately attend because of the pandemic. And as of mid-May, a Niche survey of more than 35,000 high school seniors reported nearly 60 percent were reconsidering their college choices. 

We know the class of 2024 better than maybe any other class.” – Jennifer Sandoval-Dancs, Claremont McKenna College

“Every model schools use is out the window. All the markers used to predict yield and classes are gone,” said Will Patch, an enrollment marketing leader at Niche and a former associate director of admissions at Manchester University in Indiana. 

In such a challenging environment, what can schools do to meet enrollment goals? 

Invest in Virtual Tours

Even before the coronavirus, not all prospective students and their parents could visit campuses to make their final decisions. To accommodate, in recent years, schools have unveiled virtual tours on their websites and across YouTube. They take various forms, from student-recorded videos to slickly produced immersive experiences with panoramic photography and embedded information modules.

YouVisit is the industry leader when it comes to producing the latter kind of content. The company, which produced its first tour in 2010, was bought by education research marketing and recruitment firm EAB in 2019. It has produced virtual tours for more than 700 colleges. Those 360-degree videos create a similar feel to exploring locales in Google Street View, except with better image quality and led by recorded student guides who share information along the way. 

A still image from the University of Richmond’s YouVisit tour

These virtual visits certainly help students get a feel for a school, but they aren’t the indicator to universities of a likely enrollment that on-campus tours traditionally have been. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t useful. EAB says that, according to an internal analysis of 650,000 students, users who share their contact information in the virtual tour process are twice as likely to apply to that school as those who fill out a form on the school’s website. That makes it no surprise, then, that users are prompted throughout the tour to provide an email address and other information such as if they are a high school student or parent. If the prompt is ignored, it appears later after a predetermined amount of time if  the viewer is engaged in the tour and might be more willing to provide information.

And contact information isn’t the only data YouVisit is capturing along the way – as a viewer clicks through the quad or takes in a sweeping view of the library’s reading room, information is recorded.

“We can see what the content is that is most important, what they are clicking on,” said Emily Bauer, EAB’s vice president for agency services. Interactive content layered into the tour with calls to action helps collect information as viewers move between parts of campus, and that data, in turn, can inform a school’s marketing strategy. “The challenge is understanding the audience on the other side of the computer. ‘Who are you? How can I have a meaningful conversation with you?’”

The amount of data collected in the last three months has spiked: Between mid-March and mid-April, EAB reported more than 1.4 million people viewed a YouVisit tour, and EAB said they’ve seen a 228-percent year-over-year increase in high school seniors viewing a YouVisit tour for the same time period. View rates for sophomores and juniors were also more than 200 percent higher compared to the year before, suggesting the tours could be some of the first impressions for high school students. 

As schools look for new ways to show off their campus and to increase the amount of data they can leverage, Bauer said they now average 21 business queries a day from schools considering their services – more than they used to have in a week.

Know the Limits of Virtual Tours

Both Claremont McKenna College and Western Michigan University have YouVisit campus virtual tours. WMU also makes the tour ‘live’ every weekday at 3 p.m. with students narrating the tour and answering questions. A version with the students is also available on demand. The CMC tour, which covers the five undergraduate schools in the Claremont Colleges consortium, gives a good sense of CMC’s location and a stunning view of the City of Claremont for those who can’t visit in person, said Jennifer Sandoval-Dancs, CMC’s associate vice president for admission and financial aid, but does lack the authenticity of an on-campus tour and real conversations with students instead of a script. 

Patch at Niche said his data shows that students rely more on school search sites and social media than virtual tours to form opinions about schools. Part of Niche’s business includes digital marketing for 1,700 schools. Patch says schools would do well to continue “meeting parents and students where they already are, rather than designing something new and trying to push them to your site.”

That means creating content on TikTok (for students), Facebook (for parents), and Instagram (for both). It also means creating communications that are authentic, and prioritizing authenticity over well-polished messages. And who better to create that content than students? It’s why Niche says student social media takeovers and student-published blogs are so effective, and why it’s okay for them to be rough around the edges – even if that means there is a typo in a student blog.

“You’re not going to win awards, but you’re going to win students,” he said.

View this post on Instagram

Hey everyone! I’m Melisa Olgun (she/her/hers) / (@melisaolgun) and I am a senior Neuroscience & Behavior and Science in Society double major from Long Island, New York. I just finished up my last semester (ahhh!), and if we weren’t in corona-time, I’d be outside on Foss Hill enjoying senior week. Being remote for the past two months has given me the time to ~reflect~ on my time at Wesleyan. I’ll be taking you along in this ~reflective journey~, sharing photos that show a tidbit of what my life was like at Wes. I’ll be answering any questions you have on our story with the Q&A sticker! Let’s go! #OurWes #Wes2020 #studenttakeover (Featuring a special guest: giant co-op mushrooms!)

A post shared by Wesleyan University (@wesleyan_u) on

Image of Wesleyan University’s student Instagram takeover

Offer More Content

At WMU, in-person visit days scheduled for March and April on the Kalamazoo campus were replaced with virtual admitted student events held in April and May. Admitted students could choose to build a half-day itinerary of 30-minute virtual sessions that included an introduction to the academic colleges, new student orientation, a current student panel, and information about study abroad and career services. WMU used VisitDays, an online platform manager, to schedule and host those virtual events. 

“The challenge is understanding the audience on the other side of the computer. ‘Who are you? How can I have a meaningful conversation with you?’” – Emily Bauer, EAB

Along with those specific days, WMU’s admissions office now regularly offers interactive chats, webinars, phone calls with admissions officers and students, virtual campus tours and enhanced social media. 

People want to see the campus and get a feel for it and that’s hard to do virtually, WMU Director of Admissions Alicia Kornowa said in a statement. Still, she believes the virtual events are making the intended impression and are actually leading to greater individual connections for prospective students.

“We’re offering so much that groups tend to be smaller than [they are] via traditional, on-campus visit options and we’re finding that students are more likely to have in-depth conversations. We’ve received a lot of feedback about how apparent it is that WMU cares,” she said.

Get More Personal 

About 30 miles east of Los Angeles, CMC closed its campus just six weeks before its May 1 decision deadline.

As it became clear the campus would remain closed at least through spring, admissions staff produced a video to show the campus and launched online information sessions. The fact that admitted students would not visit campus forced CMC’s admissions team to increase its virtual engagement with admitted students to help them connect to the college, said Sandoval-Dancs. “We couldn’t guarantee they would have that moment on campus. We couldn’t guarantee they were going to meet that professor.”

Video of student-led tour of Claremont McKenna College

In response, CMC offered more than 50 Zoom presentations throughout April, led by department chairs, the registrar, and administrators of student activities. There were also sessions addressing parent questions and concerns. A planning email sent every Wednesday listed all the possible online events prospective students and parents could join. One-on-one phone calls and responses to email queries also continued.

“Virtual groups tend to be smaller than in on-campus visits and we’re finding that students are more likely to have in-depth conversations.” – Alicia Kornowa, Western Michigan University

“There is no way we could have pumped all that content and programming into a day on campus,” said Sandoval-Dancs. “I feel like they could engage with us more directly and intentionally … We know this class [of 2024] better than maybe any other class.”

With plans for fall instruction unclear as of late May, Sandoval-Dancs said she would task student summer interns with designing content for prospective students earlier in the search process, relying on their experience as recent prospectives to help craft appealing messaging. That means considering messaging for social media, online sessions and printed materials for those just learning about CMC and something different for those further along in the college search looking for something more personalized. She believes the new online content and approaches developed in recent months will continue to be used in the future, regardless of when students return to campus. 

Continue to Recruit the Committed

At larger universities, the new-student orientations can be spread across the summer months. But this year, they will likely not happen at all in many states. 

That means students will lose the opportunity to meet other incoming students and begin building friendships with them, since that won’t necessarily happen “if you’re sitting in front of a computer in your living room,” Patch said. He added that many schools are waiving required deposits this year. Both scenarios create risk of “not emotionally and financially locking in” soon-to-be first-year students, and therefore, higher risk of melt.

To guard against this, Patch suggests a summer of “remarketing” to not only incoming students but also current students, who could transfer. Digital advertising can reinforce the brand, and emails to students can remind them why they chose your school.

“Don’t let them forget how much they love you. Don’t let some other school swoop in,” he said.  

One way to keep students engaged is to let them begin studying, and at least one college is already offering a two-credit course only for its Class of 2024. Oberlin College’s “Uncovering COVID-19: Critical Liberal Arts Perspectives” includes lectures by faculty members from departments as obvious as biology and economics, but also cinema studies and American studies, “demonstrating the interdisciplinary approach necessary for fully comprehending the current crisis,” according to a course description.

“Every model schools use is out the window. All the markers used to predict yield and classes are gone.” – Will Patch, Niche

The course and all materials are free to registered students. If a student decides to ultimately attend another school, they can transfer the credits with an Oberlin transcript – for a tuition fee of $1,000.

Still image of Oberlin College’s course page

More than 500 students signed up for the eight-week course that started on Zoom in early April. A second cohort began the last week of May. 

“We’re very excited that two-thirds of our incoming students will have taken the class across the two sections,” said Manuel Carballo, Oberlin’s vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid. “We believe this has helped out incoming students acclimate to Oberlin’s academic community while also forging personal connections with each other.” 

Oberlin’s new course is just one among countless examples of how colleges and universities have overhauled so much of what they do in the last three months. The pandemic has pushed much of society to operate in ways it never anticipated, and universities are no different. Just as there is currently no discernible end to the pandemic, there is also no foreseeable end to the wave of changes rippling across higher education. And tech-driven adaptations like virtual campus visits may become a permanent fixture in the college admissions funnel, another tool for – and reality of – an increasingly virtualized college experience.  

Steve Lannen

Steve Lannen

Steve Lannen is an award-winning freelance journalist and communications professional based in Seattle.

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