The COVID-19 crisis has brought with it many uncertainties for higher education. Initial questions about whether to address the pandemic in COVID-19 messaging with prospective and admitted students quickly evolved into how to address it. Among these questions: What should you tell students about plans for the fall that are yet to be set in stone? How should you convince students to enroll when campus visits are cancelled?
Unprecedented challenges, on the other hand, also present opportunities to stand out from the rest. Which institutions did particularly well with their communications to admitted students in the spring of 2020? College-bound high school seniors told us in our latest Student Sentiment Research Report.
Who Did We Ask?
Eduventures’ Student Sentiment Survey™ is an annual research project that aims to better understand how college-bound high school students research colleges and how they perceive institutional recruitment outreach. This year’s data includes responses from 6,100 high school seniors, juniors, and sophomores across the nation.
Given the unusual circumstances in which high school seniors are making their enrollment decisions this spring, we asked the senior respondents whether they recalled a school that communicated particularly well during the crisis, and if so, what that communication entailed. Note that we specifically asked for positive examples.
Sixty-eight percent of seniors told us they indeed had positive experiences with institutional COVID-19 messaging . Some schools were mentioned more often than others. Taking into account that large institutions had a greater chance to be mentioned, we identified the top five communicators based on frequency and consistency of mention relative to their applicant pool sizes. They are listed below in no particular order.
And the Winners Are…
Alvernia University, a small private, faith-based institution in Pennsylvania, stood out positively among its prospects and admits by showing concern for student wellbeing. Alvernia’s effort to provide support and be helpful was highly appreciated by its prospects. Below is a sample of verbatim student responses:
“Constant checking and made sure that everyone’s wellbeing and mental health was doing okay as well.”
“They were supportive, consistent and overall very present. They went the extra mile to make you feel welcome and helped.”
Prairie View A&M University
This public, historically black university in Texas was positively mentioned for proactively communicating information about the spread of COVID-19 on its campus and how the school was responding. According to prospects, this helped build trust that while new cases might have emerged, there was a plan in place and that the school would adapt to both new medical information and students’ changing needs. Selected student responses included:
“Immediate email about new cases on the campus and information on how to report it to medical.”
“They have been very adaptive and understanding.”
Southern Utah University
This public institution in Utah was able to personalize its response despite an applicant pool of more than 10,000 students. This personalization conveyed care and effort and was well received by prospects. One student even commended Southern Utah University for being a “trailblazer” with its proactive COVID-19 messaging. Here are some examples of what students said:
“It was amazing communication. They really care about the students and take pride through various forms of communication. Very personal.”
“They are really the only ones who reached out to me. They made a video for all the seniors. They have put in a lot of effort to reach out to me individually.”
Oregon State University
Oregon State University stood out for its level-headed, informative approach. Students lauded the school’s transparency and continuous updates about deadlines, events, and procedures. It was praised for demonstrating calm leadership in a time of uncertainty. According to students:
“They were frequent and clear about changes.”
“They were extremely communicative and transparent with their response to the crisis via email.”
“Not a panic mindset.”
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley
This public institution in Texas provided students with helpful information about the pandemic and about the school’s response. Admits appreciated the communication about procedures and plans for the fall. Students felt they were being kept in the loop and that the university worked toward easing obstacles to enrollment, for example, by waiving standardized testing requirements. A selection of responses included the following:
“Their websites were beyond helpful with what to do and what to be expecting in the future.”
“Videos about the COVID 19.”
Different Institutions, Similar Patterns
While the institutions featured here led by example, students positively recalled over 500 individual schools and their responses during the crisis. The range of institutions was diverse in size, location, and type, but what students had to say showed familiar patterns. Based on these patterns, we could identify communication practices that resonated well with their audiences:
Keeping in Touch: Students appreciated receiving proactive, frequent, and concise information from the schools they were considering. These schools stood apart from those that applied the old adage that “no news is good news;” students applauded schools that did not have to be nudged for relevant information.
Striking the Right Tone: Students differentiated between institutions that put students first and those that were perceived as merely sending marketing language. Personalization, concern for student wellbeing, and reassurance helped to build trusting relationships between students and schools. Students particularly appreciated when schools were willing to adapt to students’ changing circumstances and work to help them resolve individual obstacles to enrollment.
Being Transparent: Students complimented schools for their transparency – even when institutions did not have firm plans to share. Students understood that the situation was constantly changing but looked to institutions for leadership. While students wished they could have more certainty about what fall would look like, communication of contingency plans and scenarios were welcomed; they made students feel like the institution was in charge and on top of the situation.
Conveying the Campus Experience: At the time of our research, many students were still assessing fit and wanted to better understand what life on campus—either in person or virtually—would be like. Students favorably mentioned institutions that offered immersive virtual experiences such as campus tours, information sessions that allowed students to ask questions, and observation of a class in session.
The Bottom Line
During this crisis, the institutions that were best able to connect with prospective students likely did what they do in normal times as well: they tried to view the situation from the students’ perspectives.
Effective recruitment communication puts students first, seeking to build a relationship rather than push a product. That starts with acknowledging and addressing the hardships and obstacles students may face. Institutions that do so in an empathic way will likely fare better than those that carry on with business as usual or remain quiet for long periods until internal plans are finalized.
More to come: we are just beginning to analyze this year’s Student Sentiment Research data. We are working on more insights into how the crisis has shaped student search behaviors and attitudes, including those of younger cohorts.
We understand the incredible challenges that COVID-19 has caused for each of you, your institutions, and most importantly, your students. We recognize the immediate impact the industry is already facing, and we understand the potential long-term consequences to come. We are committed to being a trusted resource for all of our members and providing institutions with timely insight to better support your evolving needs.
In addition to our weekly Wake-Up Call, we are committed to delivering timely and relevant answers to real-world questions that institutions are now facing in light of COVID-19. These Snapshots will cover a broad range of questions that our team has received over the last several weeks. You’ll find concise and pragmatic advice around traditional student demand, program innovation, and adult learner demand.