Yielding a Fall Class During COVID-19

Carnegie Higher Ed Mar 24, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

What if I asked you what were you doing this time last year? If you work in college admission and enrollment, you would probably answer with things like: preparing for your first of multiple admitted student days, checking year-over-year deposit numbers on a daily basis, visiting students at community colleges and talking with them about transferring in the fall, and finalizing plans for orientation. 

Fast-forward to today—the college admission world has turned upside down. What was once the most common and critical of yield practices—forging a true human connection between the campus community and prospective students—is now the most difficult to execute. The entire student search process rests on the ultimate goal of bringing students to campus to experience the “aha” moment that convinces a 17-year-old to spend their next four years learning and growing at an institution. With the dawn of COVID-19, higher education’s most powerful sales moment has been stripped away and replaced with a heightened level of anxiety.

One common thread through all this is that while in-person visits are no longer an option, screen time is at an all time high. By revamping their yield strategy to incorporate multiple digital elements, admission teams can still obtain that personal connection prospective students are looking for. So how can admission teams provide a human element to our new “real life” virtual reality to aid high school seniors during the final stretch? Let’s dive in.

Fine-tune your website

The college website has always been a critical part of the student journey. In fact, based on the 2019 CollegeXpress Student Insights Report, over 63% of high school seniors claim it is the most important tool during their college search process. 

The problem is that many college websites were built as an internal function rather than an external marketing tool. College websites began as a source of information for current students, staff, alumni, and community members. Changing that focus from an informational hub to a powerful recruitment and yield tool isn’t easy, especially with the hundreds of stakeholders involved. That’s becoming more and more apparent in the current higher education landscape, where prospective students are relying on college websites at a time when they’re making their final decision. And while a website overhaul might be the long-term plan, there are a couple things colleges and universities can do now to have a short-term impact on yield.

Conduct a content audit

A simple but powerful exercise to start with is a website content audit from the perspective of an accepted student. This can be completed in three easy steps:

  1. Identify 10 or so things that an accepted student would look for on a college website—things like virtual event opportunities, counselor contact information, process to deposit, overview of housing opportunities, financial aid information, etc. 
  2. List these out and identify a group of people from both within and outside the organization to comb through the website to find the information. 
  3. Gather feedback from the exercise. Did they run into any challenges? Was there any information missing? How did each page look on mobile? What happened when they searched for specific keywords on Google—what page did it take them to? 

Running this type of internal audit can identify problem areas that could be addressed during this critical time. Things like adding headers, reducing page load time, and moving the CTA above the fold can have a huge impact on page engagement and may lead to a more positive student experience. At the yield stage, students want nothing more than to connect and be connected with faculty, staff, and students, so the main goal of any audit should be to make that as easy as possible, from all different entry points. Read more on the importance of content audits.

Admitted student portals

Over the past two to three weeks, a project that would have typically taken months to develop happened in a matter of days as hundreds of colleges and universities launched COVID-19 specific web pages. These pages were built to provide prospective students, current students, parents, alumni, staff, and other community members the most up-to-date information on campus events, procedures, and news around the pandemic. Why not use the same tools and resources to create “pop-up” segmented admitted student pages? These can be based on programs of interest, location, or other specialty areas like honors and transfer. The common denominator is the development of a space students can go to find all things related to their needs. 

Take the idea of segmenting by programs of interest, for example. These pages could include information on where students can register for virtual conversations with faculty, chat with current students in their major, view tours of their specific academic building, and connect with alumni in the field. This accomplishes some of the community building that happens on campus during admitted student days.  

Social media

There’s no question that we can expect to see a substantial rise in social media usage during the next several months, particularly with Gen Z.  Unfortunately, in 2020, simply creating a Facebook group or hashtag for your incoming class is not enough to keep students engaged and impact yield during these long days of social distancing. What accepted students are looking for above all else is authentic video content on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. YouTube alone accounts for 92% of Gen Z social media users, with Instagram and TikTok not far behind. So where should you focus your energy to have the biggest impact?

Social listening

With all the content out there surrounding COVID-19, it can be easy to forget there are other timely conversations happening online around college admission. Now more than ever, students are turning to websites like Reddit to get real answers for difficult questions. Knowing what chatter is out there is the first step in creating a connection with your incoming class. 

Urge your counselors to search your brand and mascot in Reddit, YouTube, and TikTok and empower them to engage with authentic responses. This is not the time to provide the cookie-cutter script; rather, your admission staff and current students should build a connection with rising seniors who are most interested in your institution. As a bonus, you may often find content produced by your recent accepted students—content that, with the students’ permission, can be shared across your own school social pages to encourage similar posting from your entire accepted population.

Student takeovers

One of the most valuable (and low-cost) pieces of content a college can provide is current student–produced content. And while students aren’t on campus to do a more “traditional” takeover, their voices are more important than ever to your accepted students who are relying heavily on websites and email communications to gather information. Leverage your student staff who are all over the country to produce Instagram stories or short YouTube spots telling the story of why they chose your institution. Tag them (with their permission) to open the lines of communication between current and future students.

Emerging platforms

What better time to explore a new social platform than during a quarantine, when we are at the peak of social media usage. Thinking about TikTok or Reddit? Dip your toes in the water and explore what other institutions are putting out there. Write down the types of content that are getting the most engagement. Create a library of 10 pieces to get started and roll them out two or three times a week. Not sure where to start? Contact us at info@carnegiedartlet.com for a collection of best practices for all the established and emerging social platforms to get you started! 

Think outside the box

Things are weird right now (to say the least). What better time to step outside our comfort zone and pursue a radical idea? Admission teams need to stay engaged with admitted students for longer than ever before—and without the ability to get facetime in, we need to get creative. Organize a Netflix Party, set up a Kahoot game to win swag, send a text to check in on admitted students, or post a series of “this or that” surveys on Instagram. The options are practically endless.

What’s next?

Higher education is now faced with new, unforeseen challenges brought about by COVID-19. The methods that proved successful this time last year need to be rethought, retooled, and, in some cases, thrown out the window. Whatever you decide to do, have fun with it. Gen Z is the first to truly integrate the virtual with reality, which means they have a higher-than-usual comfort in front of a camera or through a social media chat. Higher education professionals should feel empowered to do the same.

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