Enrollment strategies are crucial for higher ed operations. Tuition is one of their top sources of revenue. Historically, enrollment strategies ramp up in March and April in preparation for the following fall semester.
However, with the current Covid-19 pandemic, this critical marketing period has been met with state and federal obstacles. 86% of college presidents put fall or summer enrollment numbers at the top of their most pressing issues in the face of COVID-19 . While some colleges and universities have pivoted, rolled out online courses, and limited campus activity, others have struggled and have had to close campus entirely. According to data published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, freshmen enrollment nationally is down 16.1% and total undergraduate enrollment is down 4% .
The college selection process amid the coronavirus pandemic is a changing landscape. With protocols and policies changing frequently, higher ed institutions face a need to apply different strategies to maintain enrollment for the semesters to come. One thing is for sure there will be change. What colleges must now do is prepare for limited recruitment strategies and focus on their current resources available, their websites.
5 Enrollment Strategies for Higher Education Institutions during the COVID-19 Pandemic:
This age of uncertainty brings the need for complete honesty and transparency with an emphasis on community. Utilizing the institution’s website as a tool to share helpful information will be crucial. Detail new procedures and protocols for students and have these clear and accessible on your site. Allow for PDF versions of all online material so that it can be easily saved and printed. Couple that with coordinated and consistent positive messaging suggesting that the college has prepared for whatever the outcome may be. Emphasizing that no matter what, the college or university will get through this together.
While transparency is not a typical element that students look for in the college selection process, it gives virtual students the community experience they seek upon entering a higher education atmosphere. Transparency also eases their minds that their college or university has their safety and well-being in mind. Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, is an exemplary example with their Health Dashboard displayed on their homepage . This dashboard serves as a transparent and consistent source of information for students, parents, and faculty. If university websites and social media platforms focus their branding efforts toward their higher education website spaces, these internet spaces become the campus of that institution.
2) A Digital Strategy
Higher education institutions need to utilize their digital resources to reach prospective students during these uncertain times. With in-school visits and campus tours grinding to a halt, they must get their institution virtually accessible. From video production to virtual tours, the campus itself must move to digital space to showcase all it has to offer. Students that are unable to visit institutions in person should have access to the campus on a virtual level. Better yet, a customized virtual experience that shows the institution can and will continue to pivot with ongoing uncertainties. Institutions that have not already taken advantage of these digital resources are only going to fall farther behind for the following semester’s enrollment.
2.1) SEO, SEM, Social Media Marketing, and Digital Ad Campaigns:
SEO & SEM: Higher Education institution’s enrollment strategies should not only rely on their websites. Adjusting existing marketing strategies to fit the current pandemic is another area to act. SEO and SEM strategies should be expanded to account for the current pandemic climate. While some colleges and university marketing teams already know what their target audience is searching for, these searches have changed. CAPPEX, a firm specializing in helping students navigate the college selection process, conducted a survey of high school seniors to find what search terms they were looking for in the college selection process. That survey found that high school seniors were searching the following, only one was unrelated to the Coronavirus pandemic: 
- Information about virtual events (57% of respondents)
- Virtual tour options (58%)
- Deadline changes (85%)
- Virtual advising/counselor connecting (39%)
- Financial aid decisions (66%)
Higher education institutions should capitalize on data like this to decide which terms are actionable, and how to increase their ranking in search engines. When designing and planning these SEO and SEM campaigns, colleges must be selective on the keywords they want to rank for. Finding a niche and using long-tail keywords will be the key to ranking success. While the school’s short-term goals should be tailored to the conversations around its offerings during the pandemic, long-term goals should remain focused on higher education strategy post-pandemic.
2.2) Social Media Marketing:
Social media marketing and digital ad campaigns should also be a cohesive source of unity and information. Share meaningful content that emphasizes the positivity that the community of the institution is feeling, regardless of the current educational climate. Include fresh content describing how that campus has pivoted, from virtual learning tips to spring semester FAQs. Branding like this helps to make students and their parents feel confident in how the college or university is handling the pandemic. Social media platforms also present the opportunity to engage and learn from their followers. Asking your social audience questions promotes conversations, the sharing of information. Both of these give the higher ed marketer more information as to the current morale of their college community.
2.3) Digital Ad Campaigns:
Digital Ad campaigns emphasizing unity and positivity is another digital strategy for branding during the pandemic. Messages of community and togetherness put student anxieties at ease, and show that the university is responsive to the current events affecting them. An example of this is Strayer University and Aureus University’s paid ads below. Strayer University promotes the importance of staying safe by not exposing yourself to others, showing that they care about the wellness of the user reading the ad. Aureus University’s paid advertisement has a testimonial that emphasizes the quality of education for a fraction of the price, and the CTA is applying for online classes and mentions the pandemic itself.
3) Prepare for re-enrollment, and prepare for students to take time off to let the pandemic pass
Leaders must understand that in addition to providing higher education, they are also providing the college experience, and some students will want that and value both. Instead of paying full-price tuition to sit at home and attend class virtually, these students may take time off to work or ride out the lingering effects of COVID-19. 58% of high school counselors say students are waiting to enroll in college until after campuses reopen .
With the uncertainty of the longevity of the pandemic, colleges must prepare to expect this hiatus to last until regular life has truly gone back to normal. Students who considered a one-semester break may now be considering taking a break for the entire year, seeing as the return to normalcy is uncertain. Higher education institutions realized that incoming students have already experienced virtual learning. However, some students may struggle to adapt to new learning environments and or do not have reliable resources to be successful in a virtual classroom. These students are another group that may take a break from next semester’s class to ride out the rest of the pandemic. While these students are not on campus, they should still be on the university’s marketing radar for re-enrollment.
4) Local Outreach
Colleges should also be focusing on incoming students at a local level. Traditionally, students are recruited and find colleges through their school, including guidance counselors, college fairs, and print media. Higher education institutions should focus on their local population of prospective students, and capitalize on their proximity to the institution. State-wide travel restrictions could cause students to reexamine in state schools so that they can be closer to home and can be targeted for enrollment in local institutions. There is also the potential for students to enroll in community colleges for a semester or two, where they can take courses online and earn credits. Digital strategies such as local SEO can and will be beneficial to these institutions.
5) Focus on both the incoming freshman class and your older students
Incoming students know that this is not normal, however, they have accepted that this is their reality for a few semesters to come. These students probably spent their last high school semesters in a virtual space. The incoming freshmen class has always been an important part of any enrollment and retention strategy. If these students are satisfied with their education and college experience, the college or university will most likely have that student enrolled until they graduate.
Clear communication as to how the virtual schooling will operate, and simple-to-follow instructions can help the university lift anxieties that the new group of students may be feeling. Provide assigned student counselors and advisors to check in on students and their families. Hosting campus-wide virtual events, such as club fairs, game nights, and trivia events benefit these students because are all activities they typically engage in when they live on campus. Build or highlight virtual spaces for your students to get to know one another, and support groups they can confide in. Keeping engagement and morale up during these times is crucial. Institutions may be surprised by how many events can be done virtually and continue to foster student-to-school and student-to-student relationships.
For processes as crucial as enrollment, institutions that do not pivot from their traditional strategies will continue to fall behind. There is not a clear end date for the pandemic. Higher education institutions have to be strategic by building on their existing technology and pivoting their marketing enrollment strategies.
For more information about pivoting your strategies during the Coronavirus pandemic, check out our blog on the subject. Here we share our work with two organizations, The Bowdoin Music Festival and Maine College of Art (MECA), which were successful in this process.
COVID-19 and US higher education enrollment: Preparing leaders for fall – McKinsey<
Enrollment dives at Central Mass. public colleges, between 5-15% – Worcester Business Journal
Clark University Homepage – Clark University
 Good Content and SEO Can Help College Websites During the Covid-19 Crisis – Beacon Technologies
What Will Post-Pandemic College Enrollment Look Like? – EdTech Magazine
[Image Citation] College Marketing in the COVID-19 Economy – The Century Foundation