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By: Heather G. Dotchel

Blown Away: Building a Brand-New Admissions Cycle On the Fly

The tried-and-true process for attracting prospective students is suddenly defunct. Now what?

Admissions /
By: Heather G. Dotchel

6 minutes

While colleges and universities grapple with the ongoing fallout caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — not the least of which is the Damocles-esque decision of an on-campus or remote presence in the fall semester—their admissions and communications teams have been working at a manic pace to revolutionize the longstanding processes that have historically yielded success.

The tried-and-true admissions cycle is no longer relevant for the foreseeable future. A myriad of institutions have extended deposit deadlines, moved to rolling admissions, waived deposits, pushed back gap year notification and international IB score deadlines and decided to go test-optional in order to meet the students’ needs.

And as they reschedule every milestone date on their admissions calendar, the schools we spoke to are also leaning more heavily than ever on digital tools and insights to ensure that every dollar they spend on digital marketing is highly targeted. 

“The days of ‘spray and pray’ marketing are long gone. We are going to have to be smarter about all of our outbound efforts and become almost surgical in our approach” –– Angela Polec, Assistant VP of Strategic Communications and Marketing, La Salle University.

Colleges and universities across the nation began revamping their recruitment processes almost immediately after campuses were shut down in mid-March. Gail Towns, executive director for marketing and communications at Georgian Court University in New Jersey, said that GCU’s efforts have included direct communication with students and their guidance counselors. 

“We are working with students and guidance counselors to secure unofficial transcripts, where requested, and will consider unofficial test scores too,” she said. “For transfers and graduate students, it’s been more 1:1 talks and accommodations as needed.”

The school also relaunched its website chat tool, powered by Olark, and it has been used heavily by prospective students, said Tiesha Brunson, who leads GCU’s admissions marketing office: “Admissions counselors are busier than ever answering their questions on the chat.”

Virtual Visits Help. But What Else?

One of the biggest challenges for colleges and universities was figuring out how to deal with a closed campus during a huge senior yield and junior recruitment season. “Visit Campus!” is the common battle cry, but when that is impossible, how do these institutions create an online experience – as quickly as possible, and in many cases from scratch – that gives students the confidence they need to explore or close their commitment to their university of choice?

“We had to pivot quickly, but our campus-visit operation has been moved to a completely virtual environment that includes student chat, individual appointments, open houses, admitted student days, panel discussions and more.” says Dwayne Walker, vice president for enrollment management at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Drexel University quickly created a dynamic online destination for seniors and their families designed to allow incoming students and families to “feel” the Drexel experience. 

Craig Kampes, Drexel’s assistant vice president of communications marketing for enrollment management and student success said that being virtual wasn’t the point – it was being empathetic.

“One point in particular is that we wanted to ensure we had a message outside of ‘we are now virtual.’ We know that, sadly, COVID-19 has taken much from our high school seniors,” he said. “They have lost their senior proms, graduations, and all the amazing experiences that happen during that final year of school. The one item we knew we could control was this moment, that feeling when a student gets accepted to a university. That feeling of accomplishment, pride, belonging.”

“What is trending is anxiety about whether students can afford college given the pandemic and how it has impacted family finances.” –– Cheryl Lynn Horsey, Chief Enrollment Officer at Bryn Mawr College

Triaging Enrollment Attrition

Being able to address student and family needs will be a differentiating factor for those in higher education who rise to meet the additional challenges that this pandemic has foisted upon them. 

SimpsonScarborough’s April 2020 survey indicates that the path forward is grim. According to their research, 10 percent of high school seniors are no longer planning to attend four-year institutions. In terms of retention, a staggering 26 percent of current college students have indicated they were unlikely to return to their current institution. Niche found similarly upending data that suggest 37 percent of seniors and 44 percent of juniors are likely to pick schools closer to home, and more than 50 percent are reconsidering their fall college decision at this point.

To combat those trends, administrations are relying on social listening reports from their digital teams to provide insights about what students are experiencing and feeling, as gauged by what they’re sharing and discussing on social media.

“We very much rely on feedback from our digital accounts to learn what prospective students are interested in and to engage them with timely materials/information to maintain their interest,” said Cheryl Lynn Horsey, chief enrollment officer at Bryn Mawr College. “What is trending is anxiety about whether students can afford college given the pandemic and how it has impacted family finances. [So], we want to get our messaging about ROI, tell the stories of student co-curricular and internships that have been valuable in helping them on their path, and ensure that they know that the Financial Aid Office is available for family consultation.”

These immediate crisis-driven tactics are necessary in the face of the unknown, but at some point the day-to-day management of imminent chaos has to give way to broader strategy. How does the admission cycle continue to function when traditional means of recruitment are no longer relevant? SATs and ACTs have been suspended since March; the next scheduled SAT testing date is now in late August, and while the ACT has June and July dates still scheduled, those are subject to change given constantly evolving state mandates. 

The loss of test scores not only affects evaluation criteria, but muddles the timeliness and reliability of traditional name purchases that guide a significant percentage of outbound marketing. If testing gets disrupted in the fall, this will affect not only the senior name buys for the fall 2021 class, but also for the fall 2022 class. 

Bryn Mawr is looking to expand other partnerships with third-parties like Niche to make up for the anticipated deficiencies in list buys. 

“One point in particular is that we wanted to ensure we had a message outside of ‘we are now virtual.’”–– Craig Kampes, Assistant VP of Communications, Drexel

“We will also increase mailings for recruitment focused on our great student outcomes with internships, jobs, grad schools, etc.,” Horsey said. “We already have a robust CRM that allows us to engage in targeted messaging for all students.”

Forget ‘Spray and Pray’ Digital Marketing

These disruptions to traditional ways of working mean that colleges and universities will need to lean into their digital marketing to reach their prospective audiences in other ways. SEO, content strategy, and earned media will need to work in tandem with digital ad campaigns. Inbound marketing will need to supplement traditional outbound efforts.

Jon-Stephen Stansel, a digital media specialist at the University of Central Arkansas, Digital said that as name buys are impacted, digital advertising formats and social media, in particular, will become increasingly important to higher-ed marketers. 

“Shifting funds from more traditional advertising methods like billboards, television, etc., into digital platforms that can specifically target our target demographics will be vital to the marketing strategy of university admissions office,” Stansel said.

But how to do this with the budgets that are sure to be tighter in the coming months?

“The days of ‘spray and pray’ are long gone,” remarked Angela Polec Assistant Vice President for Strategic Communications and Marketing at La Salle University. “Across higher ed, marketing and communications and admissions teams are going to need to be in lock-step in their strategy and approach through this situation. We are going to have to be smarter about all of our outbound efforts and become almost surgical in our approach…We need to rely on analytics to target the right segment with the right message and continuously measure and optimize our campaigns, especially given the demographic shifts that higher ed will be facing in the coming years.”

La Salle has decided to focus not just on prospective students, but on its community in general, providing content that serves numerous audiences. To do this, Polec says they’ve focused on their owned social media and communications channels to highlight virtual programming successes, keep audiences updated, and showcase community engagement. The added bonus to this robust compilation, she noted, is that prospective students get to see La Salle’s vibrant community.

While the initial flurry of crisis communications and the shift to online classes has subsided, it is clear that a second, longer wave of disruption is in progress. Schools are working furiously to formalize a new admissions cycle strategy at a time when they can’t even be certain when they will host students on campus again. 

Meanwhile, some realities are coming into focus: Inbound and precision marketing will be increasingly important, and the institutions that best leverage digital insights and strategies will have a great advantage.

Heather G. Dotchel

Heather G. Dotchel

Higher Education Marketing and Communications Leader

Heather G. Dotchel is a higher education professional, based in the greater Philadelphia region, who has most recently led two area colleges as their chief marketing officer. She serves as an executive board member for the PA ACE Women’s Network and on the awards committee for the College and University Public Relations and Related Professionals (CUPRAP).

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