Enrolling Your Class During a Pandemic

Even amid COVID-19, admissions professionals can have success, writes MJ Knoll-Finn.

April 13, 2020

I’m fairly certain that many of us never imagined this would be the headline at this point in our cycle. I know I never did, and yet here we are in the midst of a global pandemic and economic uncertainty that has upturned every aspect of our work and lives. During the last few weeks, while working with my team at New York University to adapt, pivot and roll up their sleeves, I’ve learned mountains of lessons, including that with the right ingredients adversity can lead to innovation, and that social distancing can bring us closer together.

We all face yearly challenges -- from difficult enrollment decisions to meeting yield targets. However, this one, COVID-19, is immensely different. It’s not simply a logistical challenge for admissions. There’s a great factor of the unknown that impacts all of us on many levels -- both professional and personal: how long the coronavirus disrupts our normal ways of life, how it strains the economy, what it may do to our health and how we continue to achieve enrollment goals and continuity of studies in colleges across the country and world. Newly admitted students, families and our very own admissions teams require agile, innovative and nurturing support this season, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Operating in a Global Context

Drawing from our experiences across the globe, starting with our campus in Shanghai that was a harbinger of change to come at the beginning of our spring semester, I want to share with you our approach to the changes that we’ve made to the 2020 admissions process.

Identifying forward-thinking solutions is top of mind for NYU, where our student body represents all 50 U.S. states and almost 170 countries. With our flagship campus in the heart of New York City and our other two degree-granting campuses across the globe in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai, we are diligently preparing for and addressing the challenge in front of us. What gives me hope is the spirit, tenacity and sheer inventiveness of our teams in such unprecedented times.

Three Ideas for Enrollment Managers in a Time of Crisis

Make the virtual personal. In an era when technology has been a part of our lives for years, this is an opportune time to think about how to make our online experience more human.

At NYU we got a head start on creating virtual spaces as our Shanghai campus began by crafting a virtual experience for applicants that includes on-demand videos but also live events that allow students and families to connect with our staff and each other. We’ve been especially careful to ensure our content is accessible to students across the globe -- sensitive to firewall limitations, variations in internet bandwidth, time zones and cultural differences -- working with talented staff from University IT, our existing online programs, marketing and admissions. We’ve also reached out individually to students and set up far more individual and small meetings with students, faculty, deans and alumni in the NYU community. I’ve even surprised myself by creating an Instagram account -- a work in progress! -- for my team so that we can connect in new ways that keep us energized. This moment has, indeed, separated us physically but also given us many ways to personally connect -- and that is making us a more collaborative, more connected team.

Provide structure, consistency and compassion. This is a time of great uncertainty. Every day, sometimes more than once a day, we’ve had to adjust to change. During these times, it is important that we provide predictable anchors for people’s sense of normalcy, but it is equally important that we provide flexibility and compassion.

At NYU, this means we are holding to standard schedules for decision release, our May 1 deposit deadline for first-year students, and our course registration schedule. These structures are important and demonstrate that our existing systems have not stopped even while we may be experiencing life differently. For more vulnerable populations, in particular, the key is to be sensitive and open to the challenges that students and their families may be facing and be flexible when they cannot adhere to our new structures. Not only does this give us a chance to connect and support each other, it gives us the opportunity to know who may need a little extra attention during this time. At NYU it's been heartwarming to see the our community -- enrollment management employees, alumni, friends and parents -- come together quickly to establish a new COVID-19 Relief Grant to help alleviate hardships that students are facing. In one short week we were able to offer funds to over 1,200 students through the availability of this fund that helped connect us to students in need.

Be boldly creative. Times of adversity can also bring great innovation as creative problem solvers adapt to new environments. This has been one of the most amazing outcomes of the challenges as we face the COVID-19 pandemic. We were all disappointed to have to cancel our in-person admitted student events, as welcoming our admitted students each April is one of our great honors in enrollment management.

However, these obstacles have forced us to find creative ways to bring our campus to each student we admit. We know that in the era of Netflix, students expect services and content to be personalized and delivered on demand. Customized videos and interactive tours are a logical place to start. If resources allow, go beyond sending out links to admitted students. Host live video discussions from your admissions team, university leadership and current students based on specific topics, for example, the academic mission of your school, what the dorms are like, the centerpieces of your community and what the resource centers and libraries look like.

I encourage you to think about and share with the enrollment management community what students may need from us. After all, we’re in this together, because if we’ve learned anything from the COVID-19 outbreak, it’s that the one way to get through this is to realize our connectedness.


MJ Knoll-Finn is the senior vice president for enrollment management at New York University.


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