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Fordham University

It's the time of year when students visit the colleges they may attend in the fall. Except this year, students can't visit. And while many colleges have delayed the date by which students must reply to their offers of admission, students must answer them before campus tours will resume.

So colleges are turning to virtual tours. At Agnes Scott College, a women's college outside Atlanta, students can visit a range of academic and other facilities: the quad, the dining hall, the library, science labs, dormitory rooms and more. It's a chance to woo students with a beautiful campus -- even in videos.

At the University of California, Berkeley, a virtual Cal Week will replace in-person events for new students and will feature previously recorded and live events. No one is saying that virtual tours will replace in-person tours any time soon, but colleges are all in on the idea.

At Fordham University, students have a choice between virtual events and live events in which they receive -- via streaming video -- personal tours of one of Fordham's campuses.

Patricia Peek, dean of undergraduate admission at Fordham, said that "conservatively," Fordham has seen 2,200 visitors take a virtual tour versus 730 for March and April of last year. (Others, of course, took a regular campus tour.) And that doesn't count more than 3,000 attendees at virtual events.

"We hope to be able to welcome both admitted and prospective students and their families to visit our campuses soon," she said via email. "However through this experience, we have a greater appreciation for the value of virtual programming. They will provide a new level of access for many students, especially students who face barriers in the college search process and those who come from great distances or live abroad. We will certainly be augmenting our menu of virtual offerings as part of our visit programming in the future."

Fordham uses YouVisit, which was recently purchased by EAB, for online events.

According to EAB, the increase that Fordham is seeing is hardly unique.

Between March 13 and April 13, nearly 1.4 million people viewed a virtual campus tour produced by YouVisit. High school seniors are taking these tours at a rate 228 percent higher than they were at this time last year.

EAB currently partners with 539 colleges on virtual tours and has 748 active virtual tours online.

The tours attract applicants in addition to enrolled students. According to an EAB analysis of more than 650,000 students, individuals who share their contact information while on a virtual tour are twice as likely to apply to that college as students who call or email an institution directly or fill out a form on the college's website.

Of course right now, the group of students colleges are most interested in is next year's freshman. The data from EAB offer some insights there as well.

Several recent surveys have said that students are much more likely this year than in the recent past to favor colleges that are close to their homes. But EAB’s web traffic data show little year-over-year variation in the percentage of students who view virtual tours of in-state colleges (31 percent did so in 2019 versus 29 percent in 2020) compared to out-of-state colleges (69 percent in 2019; 71 percent in 2020).

Emily Bauer, EAB's vice president for agency services, said "nothing can match the impact of walking a beautiful college campus on a sunlit day in spring with flowers blooming and birds chirping. We all know that isn’t possible right now."

But she said that "done well," virtual tours "help build affinity with those students and give them direct and indirect information they might not be able to get any other way. These tours help schools tell their unique stories in a virtual environment, but they also signify to a student that this school is going that extra mile to help them make a difficult decision during a really difficult time."

Most colleges report that, whatever their yield, or the percentage of accepted students who enroll, is, visits (in person) this time of year are a great indicator of student interest. Many colleges report that most of the students who have been accepted and visit this time of year enroll.

Bauer said that "virtual tours can be done well, or they can be done poorly."

She recommended "layering interactive multimedia elements and embedding effective calls to action within the tours."

EAB is not the only player in helping colleges move their tours online. PlatformQ is another player.

Gil Rogers, executive vice president of PlatformQ Education, said that his company is doing well over 100 admitted student events per week this year and has many more scheduled. The events range from newly admitted student programs to orientation programs (in the summer).

"We are also seeing a move to leveraging on-demand content and simulated live presentations with chat to transition what was traditionally a daily information session on campus to an online environment," he said. "The feedback I’m getting is that virtual tours and viewbooks are not dynamic enough given they are a piece of a strategy but not comprehensive without a live engagement element."

The real test will be on May 1 or June 1 or when students actually enroll. And if they do, colleges are also starting online engagement with alumni, such as Experience Rochester, from the University of Rochester. With online lectures on the pandemic, but also on American democracy, the effort aims to help students keep ties with the university -- even at a time when alumni can't visit.

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