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There’s no doubt that many colleges and universities are facing immediate threats to their financial survival as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. When Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, stated in his recent book, The College Stress Test, that 10 percent of the nation’s colleges were at risk of closing, his prediction sounded dire enough. Recently, he told ABC News, “We think another 10 percent is at risk because of the virus.” It’s not surprising that throughout the country, colleges and universities are engaged in desperate operations to rescue their 2020-21 enrollments.

But here’s the thing: we need to address the Class of 2021 and beyond with equal urgency, and figure out how to connect not only with today’s rising seniors but also with their younger siblings.

A Sharp Reduction in Access to Familiar Marketing Channels

Enrollment officers face a sharp reduction in their access to traditional marketing channels that have, for decades, allowed them to reach high school juniors and seniors at the height of their college search. High school visits and college fairs are off the table for most enrollment officers, with travel now limited due to COVID-19. Similarly, many students won’t be willing or able to visit campuses in person.

Earlier in the year, COVID-19 shut down in-person SAT/ACT testing centers, and many institutions have moved to test optional. These two factors combined mean fewer students will be taking the tests, making it harder to find good-fit students by buying test lists from College Board or ACT.

Many feel that going test optional could be a positive side effect of the crisis that ultimately decreases the opportunity gap. At Notre Dame, we decided to adopt a test-optional pilot program this year that empowers students to choose whether or not to include a test score as they develop their strongest applications.

But current conditions all lead to one conclusion in the summer of 2020: it’s never been more important -- or more challenging -- for enrollment officers to succeed.

Reaching All Populations With Lower Barriers to Entry

Recent events completely reset the admissions and enrollment models at institutions. In order for colleges and universities to survive and to create a more sustainable, resilient higher ed system, their reinvention will have to be based on a foundation that is both more efficient and more equitable. And going forward, digital technology must be an essential and integrated component in all efforts to reach students and parents, with or without traditional recruitment tactics.

Using highly interactive digital platforms, colleges will then be able to recruit more diverse classes of students from across the country and across socioeconomic divides to support increased access and equity goals.

For instance, since virtual channels make it possible to provide native-speaking representatives and break down cultural barriers, institutions can use digital platforms to connect with historically underserved groups of first-generation students and their families. As one example of this, the University of Missouri at Kansas City reaches prospective Latinx students virtually with live remote bilingual chat office hours. The university is also planning family nights for these students, hosted by native Spanish-speaking UMKC admissions counselors and representatives. Similarly, Notre Dame is organizing virtual events with community-based organizations that include diverse student demographics, from rural to urban.

As another example of the scope of digital options, the University of Connecticut developed a virtual orientation in less than 30 days that includes nearly 70 video modules spliced together in a dedicated path that’s tailored to each student’s needs. Students only see the six to eight videos that are most relevant to them, based on their profile (first year, transfer, content by academic college, regional campus, etc.). UConn integrated the video workflow process in their student orientation system to ensure the completion of key content before students can register for courses in the fall. To date, over 7,000 students began the process, with over 90 percent completing it.

Bringing in the Student’s Community

Digital platforms also allow admissions and enrollment officers to contact high school counselors to find out how best to connect with their students when traditional recruitment approaches aren’t possible. At Notre Dame, we sent out a survey to high school counselors in our database on July 1 to ask about in-person high school visits versus virtual visits. This allowed us to understand their preferences and their perspective on what would be the best way to engage with their students. What we learned is that counselors preferred a virtual, tech-based approach that is tightly focused on specific topics.

And it is also important to recognize that while we speak a lot about the student, the parent usually heavily influences decision making. Developing virtual sessions that are accessible to parents who work full-time is another way to lower the barrier to entry for many students.

At Notre Dame, we developed a virtual strategy that goes beyond our traditional in-person family events. We’ve created virtual regional events that bring together both parents and students in evening information sessions. This way, enrollment officers are able to reach families at their homes, while also avoiding the screen fatigue that arises when staff members are expected to host numerous separate events.

Creating Authentic Experiences With the Right Digital Platform

The beauty of traditional campus visits is that they’re organic and flexible. Without fall travel, however, students and parents lack the opportunity to experience a campus with all five senses. They miss that “I can see myself here” moment, which is so important for any major life choice. But what we’ve discovered is that with the right digital platform, the community can become the campus.

For example, at Notre Dame, we turned over access to our social media channels to current students to share their experiences and thoughts about our campus culture and activities. We also let students run information sessions without a Notre Dame moderator controlling the conversation. Recently, this allowed students from our science and engineering colleges to engage prospective students in the kind of free-form question-and-answer conversation that student tour guides will often provide in person.

Babson College is also using its digital platform to invite alumni to participate in virtual panel opportunities for prospective and admitted students. This allows far-flung graduates and “celebrity” alumni to interact with a student audience in virtual sessions, whereas their in-person participation would be logistically and financially impossible. For example, the founder of Ring, a 1999 Babson graduate, and his entrepreneur colleagues came together recently in a virtual panel discussion for prospective students about lifelong learning.

The Importance of (Digital) Human Contact

Perhaps most importantly, interactive tech platforms allow us to respond personally to students, providing the human contact we’ve all been missing during the pandemic. It probably comes as no surprise to parents or educators that today’s students are often more willing to text than to engage at in-person events. Being able to text a student just to check in, for example, encourages an authentic interaction and connects us to what’s truly important to them, whether that’s worries about grades or questions about social distancing.

There’s a well-known saying about not letting a good crisis go to waste. Let’s be clear: a global pandemic is never a good thing and the coronavirus has wrought terrible destruction around the world. But by forcing the status quo to come to an abrupt halt, this crisis is opening unexpected opportunities to restart on different terms.

We admissions officers and enrollment managers have been given a second chance to improve our ways -- to help every student find their best fit. It behooves us to use all the ingenuity, integrity and innovation at our disposal to do so. We have new tools and insights that will allow us to reach more students in more communities. Let’s grab this opportunity and embrace the “old normal.”

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