Strategic Decisions & Related Communications Strategy

Carnegie Higher Ed May 28, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

Across higher education, campus leaders are wrestling with some of the most important decisions they will have to make in their careers. Information critical to these decisions comes at institutional leaders from all angles—from their municipalities or cities, counties, states, federal agencies, boards, cabinets, committees, strategic partners, and research findings across the sector. Yet there is little precedent for the decisions required, and there is surely no single answer for how to deliver higher education this fall and throughout the upcoming academic year. 

As individuals, families, and professionals, we all grapple with the tough decisions of how life moves forward safely and appropriately amid the pandemic. It can become almost paralyzing to know the well-being of so many lives can be positively or negatively influenced by the decisions that need to be made. Yet the data is clear: the sooner decisions are made, communicated, and operationalized by institutions, the better prospective students are likely to feel in making their own decisions on where and how to attend colleges and universities this fall.

Decision-making cannot wait. Campuses need runway to implement how education will be delivered within social distancing. Current and prospective students need information from their schools in order to make their own decisions with confidence. And many families need to determine how they can pay for their daughters’ and sons’ educations amid fluctuating and uncertain job and economic circumstances. With that in mind, here are some of the strategic considerations for institutions in this, our first—and hopefully last—summer of COVID-19.

Opening campuses

A campus that physically opens with simple social distancing measures is likely to retain 95% of its commitments, according to a recent Carnegie Dartlet survey. However, the later an institution waits to make such a decision, the more apprehension students have. Over the last couple months the concern prospective students have about COVID-19 negatively impacting their education has increased significantly. Yet they remain steadfast in their educational journey, with their intent not to delay this year’s education holding steady despite the increase in concern.

The US is reopening in a decentralized process that puts institutions in various positions related to state and local planning and reopening regulations. Different types of schools may find themselves in stronger positions than others based on how they’ve historically delivered education, its associated cost structure, existing infrastructure, regionality, and how quickly decisions about fall are made.

Strategic recommendations

As schools contend with the decision and everything related to it, we recommend becoming a vital source of continual information for your students and families. Institutional communication is as important now as it’s ever been. Families too have information coming at them from all sides, so while you may have competition for attention, average daily screen time is way up, providing ample opportunity to be seen and heard.

To be a vital source of information for students and families, consider these imperatives:

  • Decide on your fall plan as soon as possible then communicate it and why it’s appropriate immediately. While transparency in the decision-making process is valued, ultimately, prospective students and families want answers.
  • Provide context to the fall plans based on what’s happening locally and regionally to the institution. This will round out the picture for families as they seek understanding and confidence in the institution’s fall plan. It will also position the institution as a trusted information source.
  • Leverage prospective students’ desire for increased communication frequency to keep them informed, not repeating the same information but building on information you’ve already delivered.
  • Be ready to pivot and get communication into the market quickly should a need or opportunity present itself.

Cost perceptions vs. realities

In the same high school senior survey, an overwhelming 95% of prospective students indicated a move to online coursework, even partially, would require at least some change to the cost of attendance. The intersection between cost and online learning is a perception/reality conundrum for institutions. The data suggests that reducing or eliminating activity fees, housing, and meal costs may not be enough. While we all know there are very real institutional economics and financial realities behind any decision to discount tuition, families may not care about that as they contend with their own worsening financial situations. Our research has clearly identified a growing perception that schools won’t deliver the same academic quality online that is delivered on campus. 

Strategic recommendations

What can you do? Consider your audience’s likely perception of the decisions you make and implement strategies to contend with it:

  • Communicate and drive the perception of the value of the education that will be delivered and the innovations you’re pursuing in that delivery.
    • Clearly define the new modalities associated with the student experience during social distancing, including:
    • How experiences will be provided across the spectrum of academics, research, relationship building, and social activities that are vital to the perceived value of higher education
    • How students can access faculty in meaningful ways while taking courses virtually or in an otherwise socially distanced setting
    • How virtual courses will be supplemented with other valuable learning activities
    • How the institution can still provide meaningful experiences within virtual or socially distanced settings
  • If your school is experienced in online education delivery, tout it. Project the strength and value of this experience through your history of it.  
  • Don’t stand pat—build on it. A lot of schools are now in your space. Articulate why your virtual education is different and how the institution’s history in it speaks to its capabilities.
  • Highlight student, faculty, and outcomes stories that speak to the value of the education you have delivered in the multiple ways you may have delivered it.
  • Choose wording carefully if you decide to move classes online. The perceptual difference in “online” classes versus “virtual” classes could be a difference maker.
  • Know what your competition has decided to do and position your institution appropriately against it. The competition for new students will remain fierce for most colleges and universities right up to the fall semester.
  • Provide and communicate an easy financial appeal process for families adversely affected financially by the pandemic.

Lastly, in the midst of the focus so many institutions have right now on securing the fall class, it’s critical not to forget two extremely important things. You should be actively recruiting and communicating with prospective students of future cycles, providing the longest possible horizon within which to build affinity. And you should be touting the full experience (four-year, two-year, full graduate program length) to all audiences. While so hyper-focused on COVID-19 and what it means in this moment, don’t forget to think long term. Tomorrow will arrive, and when it does, you’ll want to be ready for it. 

For more information and advice, including our full survey reports, please visit our Higher Education COVID-19 Resources page.

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