2021 Enrollment Planning in a Summer of Uncertainty

5 thoughts for college and university enrollment leaders.

Reality is sinking in and uncertainty is leading to incredibly diverse planning initiatives for Fall 2020 enrollment. As our industry focuses on the pandemic impact on new and returning college students this fall, another question looms.

What’s the impact on the next class, the entering class of 2021—today’s rising high school seniors? What does a Pandemic College Search look like?

How is this environment changing the way a rising senior is thinking about their college search? Right now, with so much uncertainty about so many things, it’s likely meant that rising seniors and their families are not thinking about it. Of course, that will change, and students and families who have a college search looming for 2021 will share some characteristics that the enrollment management industry needs to consider and accommodate:

  • Their timelines will be condensed this fall. With their world “on hold” in many ways, they are delayed in their college planning process.
  • The confusion will be elevated as a result of no junior grades, new ranking policies, no testing in the spring, and limited contact with their school counseling community.
  • For most, their financial plans are highly disrupted.
  • Academic interests have potentially changed, such as a rise in awareness of science, healthcare, and technology or a decrease in areas hit by the pandemic, such as business, advertising, or finance.

Their college search process will be different than that of all who have preceded them.

This will be a class that hasn’t gotten to a spring open house or campus visit, hasn’t seen your staff at that April college fair, and whose SAT or ACT date got canceled. The counselor recommendations are limited—as are the family discussions about college. And they’re tuned in to a media hungry to dramatize campus closures.

By necessity, how you enroll the entering class of 2021 will be unlike anything we’ve seen before. Even if campuses and schools reopen this fall, how you recruit students, develop messaging, and build your class for 2021 will be “unprecedented”.

A few thoughts to consider.

1. Senior Fall Events

Be flexible. Consider the students’ condensed timelines and the amount of options they will have. More than moving things “online,” build an “online series:” same time, same place.

Stand out. Prepare for small events that “wow” them. Simply having a personalized tour and information session for a small group will not be memorable. Think outside the box.

Be informative. Help with, don’t contribute to, the confusion. Have regular (“same time, same place”) admissions support available online. The support sessions should publicize key topics to inform them; then invite them to participate and get the help they need.

2. Fall Travel Season

Get social. Follow your feeder schools. Hashtag them information and encourage them to follow you for important updates and information. Develop a specific social media plan to generate interest in you. Have a social media plan with goals.

Meet virtually. Offer virtual appointments with school counselors and their students. Be informative and offer topics that help the counselor.

Offer advice. Create a Zoom Panel series with your admissions staff and current students addressing important application tips and things to look for while deciding where to apply and enroll. Share the Zoom panels regularly. Post on YouTube and your website.

3. Building a 2021 Inquiry and Applicant Pool

Up the volume. Amp up lead generation activities through paid search and earned media. The 2021 pool is missing months of normal development: this year requires a new strategy that is unique and robust. For this cycle, more is merrier.

Revisit your lists. List acquiring through testing agencies will be condensed with students flocking to take their exams in their senior year. Alternatively, students will forego the exams and the names will not be available to purchase. Either way, your list purchase strategy will require a new lens; how to identify more students through traditional and new sources is a must.

Maximize their experience with a microsite. Use your website more intentionally. Many colleges have a “request info” form of sorts; however, to really increase inquiries consider an unmatched prospective student user experience with a dedicated microsite. Make asking questions and signing up for information fun and informative. Build a reason for students to sign up online. Again, think outside the box.

4. Your Admissions Team

Retrain. The job they thought they knew is completely transformed. They need a new kind of training program. Build one that teaches online skills including meeting, presenting, and communicating.

Keep them safe. Think very aggressively about their health and safety. If there is any travel, they need to have sanitizer, masks, cleaning supplies—they need to be prepared. Their offices need to feel safe with disinfecting plans, handwashing stations, etc. They cannot share offices, so find new space if necessary.

Do a goal reset. Create new metrics for their success. The number of high schools they visit is less important than how many counselors they talk to in a week. The number of students they see at a college fair is less important than how many students they make contact with through virtual appointments. Rethink success and set new goals.

5. Building Projections for 2021

Measure. Historical data will be less reliable than it already was. Use real-time metrics to support projection building, such as web traffic, behavioral data, and surveys.

Build new points of reference. There will be new sources in the data that have never been used: Zoom meetings, online open houses, virtual school visits, virtual college fairs, etc. These sources will be important, and how you project enrollment from them will have no history to reference. Include surveys after each event to build data; in the interim, assign low yields for worst-case scenario building.

Project on inquiry date. Use the date of inquiry as the most reliable data point on a conversion projection. Even in a pandemic, the timing of a student becoming engaged with your institution is likely the most predictive variable.

Your roles and responsibilities were already complex. Now you are being asked to raise your level of expertise to new heights. It is okay to seek outside support to manage the complexity. These are unprecedented times.

Patricia Maben is the President of 3 Enrollment Marketing.