The Student Search in the Time of COVID-19

Carnegie Higher Ed May 01, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

For decades, the practice of buying names for student search has been the sacred cow for colleges and universities building a student pipeline, but what happens when those names are available at a completely different frequency—or not available at all? 

With the College Board’s cancellations of the March, May, and June SAT—as well as the ACT pushing out its testing dates—what does this mean for your senior pipeline, recruitment, and outreach? Has higher education been forced into a trend that’s been gaining traction for years—a time to search differently?

How can we search differently?

Over the last few months, I’ve been watching intently how my own rising senior, Charlie, has engaged with colleges, what piques his interest, and what he simply ignores. I’ve also seen how he has pivoted his own college search habits in the wake of COVID-19.

First, let’s start with pre-COVID college search for Charlie. This is what his Gmail inbox looks like; these emails date back to late January/early February, with hundreds of messages following and almost all of them left completely unopened.

I’m sure this is not an encouraging view for all those schools that spent 45 cents to buy his name (and thousands of others) from the PSAT. So this begs the question (which I did ask): how do you want to ­hear about schools? His simple answer was “online.”

Wanting to better understand his time spent online, I took a quick look at Charlie’s screen time breakdown. Once I got over the shock of the average of six-plus hours he’s spending online daily (we are sheltering-in-place, after all), I saw the bulk of his time is being spent on Snapchat, his favorite websites, YouTube, and Instagram (let’s ignore Houseparty for now!

Looking at this, I hope there might be some relief for higher ed admission marketers who are fretting about no new names to buy. Maybe you shouldn’t be so worried—just look at the opportunity to reach students who are online for over six hours every day! 

Let’s break it down: what’s your opportunity here to ensure you’re filling your senior pipeline, even in the absence of names to buy?


By the numbers

  • 360 million daily active users around the world.
  • 53% of users (18–24 years old) are in the US.
  •  69% of US teens say they use Snapchat.
  • 41% of US teens say Snapchat is their preferred social media platform.
  • Roughly eight in 10 Snapchat users age 18–29 (77%) say they use the app every day, including 68% who say they do so multiple times per day.

Why we love it 

Besides the sheer number of high school students on the platform, there are so many great targeting opportunities on Snapchat to target and authentically engage with prospects. You can choose from 300 predefined target audiences or craft your own through behavioral targeting parameters, custom lists, or look-alike audiences. There are also plenty of ad formats to choose from—you can use photos or video to drive action through your Snap Ads. And with students spending so much more time online during the pandemic (Snapchat saw a 19% increase in advertising swipe-up rates from February to March), prospects are more inclined to watch longer-form videos now more than ever. Use Snapchat to tease your video, then allow users to swipe up to watch a longer version of your video so they can really learn about your institution while they’re stuck at home.

Display advertising

By the numbers

  • There are two million websites that are part of the Google Display Network, reaching 90% of people on the internet.
  • People are 70% more likely to convert on your website after seeing a Display ad.
  • Retargeting ads can increase branded search by 500% or more.

Why we love it 

Display advertising is an extremely cost-effective way to generate brand awareness for your institution. It allows colleges to target distinct audiences with specific calls to action like “apply,” “visit virtually,” or “learn more” based on where prospects are in the funnel, allowing your Display ads to be hyper-relevant and help move students through the funnel.

With homeschooling and online learning being so prevalent right now, many lesson plans involve website research (which I’m hopeful accounts for the bulk of Charlie’s four-plus hours on Safari). This translates into so many tried and true digital opportunities for your institution to get ads in front of students through Display outreach, Retargeting, Audience Select, and IP Targeting. With so many students spending the majority of their screen time on their phones, don’t miss out on Mobile Footprints and the 180-day look-back window. This is your chance to take a student audience that was previously gathered from geofenced high school locations and target them now in their homes through their IP addresses.


By the numbers

  • 500 million daily active users.
  •  120.7 million users are in the US.
  •  72% of teens use Instagram.
  • 73% of US teens say Instagram is the best way for brands to reach them.
  •  35% of US teens say Instagram is their preferred social media platform.
  • 63% of Americans use Instagram daily.

Why we love it 

Similar to Snapchat, Instagram has such strong engagement and usage amongst the high school population, which makes it an ideal platform for colleges to connect with prospective students. Instagram has proven to be effective not only for increasing brand awareness but for driving leads as well. Leveraging all the advanced targeting and technologies that Facebook (which owns Instagram) offers, adding in Lead Gen to your Instagram Ads or Instagram Stories has been a game changer for driving qualified leads. And don’t worry about having the perfectly staged image or video—use authentic imagery that can help prospective students truly envision what it would be like on your campus. Your photos and videos should tell a story, capturing snapshots of the student experience and what life at your school will have in store for them since they can’t get to campus to see for themselves.


It came as no surprise to me to see YouTube topping the list of places where Charlie is spending his time. With students stuck at home and using YouTube daily for both discovery and learning as well as for entertainment, this is the moment for higher education marketers to capitalize on this audience.

By the numbers

  • 30 million daily active users
  • Users watch five billion videos per day.
  • 81% of 15–25-year-olds in the US use YouTube.
  • 51% of YouTube users say they visit the site daily.
  • 37% of the coveted 18–34 demographic are binge-watching on YouTube.
  • 70% of YouTube watch time comes from mobile devices.

Why we love it

Prospective students are willing and receptive to viewing your ads. In fact, at Carnegie Dartlet, we analyzed our own client campaigns in the months of March and April and saw huge increases year-over-year in YouTube ad video views, total watch time, and views to completion. And you can hyper-target students based on interests, habits, in-market, and custom intent audiences or reach those who have engaged with your site historically using YouTube Retargeting. YouTube is not only a perfect way to capture top-of-the-funnel interest, but because of the ability for video to really showcase your campus, it adds a touch of mid-funnel magic using video as high-impact storytelling.

While nothing in this blog should be new news to higher education marketers, taking a leap of faith from traditional search to a digital search strategy might be. We’ve seen higher education uncharacteristically adapt and adjust in the last few weeks and months—so maybe in the wake of these changing times, it might just be time to search differently.


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