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Choosing a college is not unlike buying a house or a car. It is a complex decision that requires a lot of information gathering, comparison shopping and a walk-through or a “test drive.”

This process led to the campus visit being regarded as the most critical element of the college search process for prospective students. Enrollment managers take great care in crafting a variety of visit programs as a cornerstone of the recruitment process. It is not uncommon for multiple tours to be offered daily (including on weekends). These events are traditionally complemented by larger-scale open houses and overnight visits.

We know how the COVID-19 pandemic changed the place of the campus visit in the recruitment process in 2020. However, there seemed to be hope for a “normal” fall cycle for 2021 as vaccination rates increased and confirmed cases fell earlier this year. Now, “normal” is once again called into question with a flattening of vaccination demand and the rise of the more-transmissible Delta variant of the virus.

What Will Fall 2021 Recruitment Look Like?

Presumably, enrollment managers must now make a choice between:

  • Building a strategy on the hope that vaccination rates will pick up again, or
  • Preparing for another wave of mask mandates and lockdowns.

Which one will you pick? My bet is that we’ll land somewhere in the middle.

And landing somewhere in the middle means that institutions will need to once again reimagine their recruitment plans.

The one benefit this time around? This time, there’s less of a surprise: there is still time to think strategically about the content of this plan and the quality of the student experience.

In 2020, students seemed more forgiving of haphazard and hard-to navigate-experiences. They knew we were making it all up as we went along, just as they were. In fact, Niche student survey data indicates that 79 percent of students who attended a virtual event would be interested in doing it again, and 84 percent of students indicated it had a big impact on their college choice.

Direct feedback from students engaging with virtual content furthers the idea that a strong virtual plan is both more measurable and equally as effective as in-person programs. California State University, Fullerton, hosted over 4,000 admitted students during its virtual admitted student programming in April to overwhelmingly positive student response: 88 percent of students felt connected to the university community, 94 percent of students felt like they belonged and 89 percent of attendees committed to CSUF during, or soon after, the event.

In-person visits and virtual content must be thoughtfully planned to work hand in hand. When consumers choose a home, information gathering starts with digital research through sites like Zillow. The physical tour of the house(s) comes later in the process. And, during the pandemic, it wasn’t unusual to read about people who viewed a house online, bought it and saw it for the first time when they moved in.

TLDR: We are not out of the COVID woods yet, and students are likely to be less forgiving of haphazard programs that piece together bits of technology. Enrollment managers must encourage their teams to build thoughtful virtual content plans (not just events!) to engage and convert prospective students. Then bring travel and more frequent and larger visit opportunities back into the fold when it is viable and safe to do so.

A leader in enrollment marketing strategy, Gil Rogers has published numerous studies on digital student engagement and presented at dozens of national conferences on enrollment strategy. He currently serves as executive vice president at PlatformQ Education.

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