Higher Ed Recruitment in the COVID-19 Era: What’s Different?

The 2020 year had a significant impact on the way higher education institutions recruit and engage with prospective students. While enrollment has always been a double-edged priority and challenge for colleges and universities, many institutions were even more concerned about meeting their enrollment goals in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic was a major factor that contributed to this year’s worries.This year’s enrollment concerns were highlighted in Inside Higher Ed’s 2020 Survey of College and University Admissions Directors, which found that 60 percent of respondents were very concerned about meeting their institution’s enrollment goals in 2020. The level of concern among admissions directors has been steadily increasing since 2013, when only 46 percent were very concerned about hitting enrollment goals, but the level of concern in 2020 has been the highest to date.

Part of the challenge is that the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted objectives for many higher education institutions.

COVID-19's Impact on Higher Ed Recruitment

In a lot of cases, colleges and universities are changing the types of students they target through their recruitment efforts because of the pandemic. Online students are now among the highest targeted prospective undergraduate students. According to the survey, 62 percent of respondents said their college is very likely to target online students with their recruitment programs. This year’s numbers represent an 11-percentage point increase from last year and a whopping 21 points higher than when respondents were first asked if they would focus on online students in 2015.

On the other end of the spectrum, institutions appear to be less focused on recruiting out-of-state and international students. The survey found that 49 percent of admissions directors would increase their recruitment efforts for attracting out-of-state undergraduate students in 2020, down from 57 percent who said so in 2019. Likewise, only 31 percent of respondents said they would increase recruitment for international students, down from 45 percent last year.

Institutions are likely changing their tactics because student demographics and habits are changing. Even only a few years ago, online learning was more of a challenge for institutions to manage and implement than it was a differentiator that could attract new students. Today, if institutions do not support online learning programs, they will most likely find it increasingly difficult to compete in general. Meanwhile, many students are seeking more flexible learning options that suit their lifestyles, especially if those individuals fall under the “nontraditional” student demographic, which consists of adult learners, first-generation students, and individuals who are looking for micro-credentials to improve their professional skills.

In other words, the way that students consume education has changed. Student habits have shifted thanks to their familiarity with online services from companies like Google, Amazon, and Netflix, which provide tailored digital experiences. As a result, students have higher expectations from their learning providers.

Recruitment in the Digital Era

As the higher ed landscape continues to transform due to external circumstances like the pandemic, institutions must find creative ways to attract “nontraditional” students. Colleges and universities will be pressured to deliver personalized experiences for students on their desired channels. This level of personalization must be delivered at scale so each type of student has a relevant recruitment and enrollment experience that addresses their unique needs and interests. Online and older students, for example, may be interested in competency-based education (CBE) programs that allow them to learn and progress at their own pace, demonstrating their mastery of specific subjects instead of getting a broader education that is based on traditional metrics like attendance and standardized tests. Other adult learners may be interested in earning micro-credentials that will help them in specific areas of their professional careers.

Many institutions are already working on and establishing their back-to-school plans for the spring 2021 semester. Colleges and universities need to follow the best practices they learned from the challenging 2020 academic year to succeed, which may include continuing to offer diverse online or hybrid learning options, supporting remote work for staff and employees, and more.

Here are a few tips that institutions should also consider when approaching the 2021 academic year.

  • Implement texting/SMS recruitment efforts to reach prospective students on their preferred channels beyond email and social media
  • Test optional and more flexible admissions processes to reduce entry barriers for prospective students
  • Use CRM and marketing automation tools to develop and deliver more dynamic, personalized content on students’ desired channels
  • Highlight stories and experiences of past and present students on social media or use influencers to target a broader audience
  • Leverage a digital chatbot that delivers around-the-clock service and can provide answers to students at any time

The ongoing shifts in the higher ed landscape are no doubt pressuring institutions to rethink their recruitment and enrollment strategies. While there is no panacea for solving all enrollment concerns, it seems that today’s digital-native students are attracted to institutions that offer personalized experiences and flexible learning options. Every institution is different. The good news is that working with a trusted, experienced partner may help colleges and universities build a plan that works for them.

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