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As the country slowly shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, we in the higher ed world wondered -- with not a little bit of worry -- what its impact would be on our professional lives and the lives of the students we serve.

The pandemic led to some profound changes among college-age students. Many decided they would look for schools closer to home or in state, or became more concerned with the cost of financing a college education. Attending a school located in a pandemic hot spot likewise became a concern. These pivots on the students’ parts made for a great bit of scrambling on college admissions teams.

After a traumatic spring and summer, the students returned to campus and things began to feel a bit more normal, or at least everyone settled into the “new normal.” But this was clear: COVID-19 would be a milestone event in the field of college recruiting.

After studying the lessons learned from an unprecedented recruiting season, we’re left to wonder how admissions teams might reach future students in a more effective, efficient and personalized way.

There’s been a lot of talk about how the business model of higher ed will change in the wake of the pandemic as predicting enrollment becomes more challenging, impacting colleges’ and universities’ overall fiscal well-being. According to a report from McKinsey & Company, four-year public institutions reap 26 percent of their revenues from tuition and fees, while four-year private nonprofit institutions collect 35 percent of revenues from those same areas. But enrollment is changing, making those numbers an unreliable source of revenue.

Data show that students are still showing up to some sort of higher ed institution. Forty-nine percent of students who have decided not to pursue a full-time bachelor’s degree still plan to attend part-time or pursue a two-year degree, while 57 percent of students who are now considering a full-time bachelor’s program were previously planning to attend a part-time or two-year program.

New Challenges -- and Opportunities

That’s all to say, admissions teams face a new challenge and fresh opportunities as norms in the higher ed world swiftly change. While there’s no way to predict how college-age students might approach higher education post-pandemic, it is foolish to believe that current trends won’t have some lasting effects.

One way to tap into new pools of potential students? Personalization and a deeper commitment to applying behavioral technology to the admissions process. The pandemic admissions experience marks a ripe opportunity for higher ed institutions to create a Gen-Z-centric recruiting experience that speaks to the unique needs of students now -- changing economic and geographic preferences, for example -- while continuing to sharpen this strategy in a post-pandemic world.

At the core of the transformation to personalized admissions is the need to adapt to technology that supports it, or what we’ve come to call intelligent admissions.

Through hyperpersonalization, admissions teams can pivot messaging as students’ needs change, with emails speaking to individual applicants across geographic, academic and financial segments. And behavioral tech will allow us to do so much more, making it easier for admissions teams to serve students during abnormal cycles while gaining an edge over all. When a student’s major is known, admissions teams can send the kind of detailed information traditional marketing materials are usually unable to cover. Or they might connect with a future student just ahead of a pivotal recruiting event.

In the future, with the development of the right technology, we might be able to detect what went wrong with a poorly received communication -- subject line? Body copy? -- and apply that learning to new emails and campaigns through an automated system. The end result: admissions pros getting the most out of their software so they can turn their focus on personal relationships with prospective students.

Amplifying Personal Touch

This personal touch becomes all the more important as higher ed rebuilds from the pandemic and the interruptions it caused. Clear communication has been a keystone to success and safety through the pandemic, as it continues to be, and higher ed is better for it. Even now, teams deal with messaging around in-person classes that might go virtual at a moment’s notice or learning how to connect with new pools of potential attendees. The numbers prove where the students’ concerns lie: the same McKinsey & Company study mentioned above noted that 52 percent of students said conversations with faculty around remote learning or their academic major would make them feel more favorable about a remote fall semester, and 42 percent wanted clear communication from their college or university.

For the time being, mainstays like heavily attended in-person open houses and marketing photos of smiling students huddled together in classrooms are out the window. So, beyond email, what tools will enrollment professionals rely on? And for how long -- till the crisis is over or indefinitely?

While there may be no clear answers at the moment, the possibility springs from experimentation. And with students showing a willingness to enroll in a higher ed program, even amid uncertainty, admissions and other higher ed teams can create an enriching college experience for them, which might include online mentoring, virtual clubs and other virtual or hybrid experiences. These possibilities make the need for smarter technology all the more important. The less effort an admissions team must dedicate to writing, designing and managing campaigns, the more time those members will have to look toward how the college experience can be reimagined.

The answer likely won’t lie in an either-or scenario, but rather, much like we’ve seen our lives enriched through practical and transformative advances in various technologies, the tools and strategies we develop at this important moment will lead to a better, more fulfilling college experience for everyone.

Ardis Kadiu is the founder and CEO of Element451, a constituent relationship management platform for higher education admissions and enrollment marketing.