In April 2020, I moderated a panel discussion on virtual admissions visits. The event was attended by nearly 500 people. Each person came looking for practical solutions. We knew that COVID-19 was going to dramatically change the upcoming school year, but no one knew the exact details. How long would the pandemic last? Would inquiries and applications go up? Would they go down? Would the economy fall into a tailspin?
The discussion featured a handful of schools that, despite the disruption brought on by the pandemic, were vigilantly preparing for what was next. One school, Pulaski Academy, had spun up a virtual admissions center equipped with virtual tours, digital viewbooks, the ability to chat with admissions counselors and more. This was the first school I saw completely reimaging their tried-and-true strategies and processes. Within a few weeks, nearly every school had created a similar experience for applicants and their families.
As the winter months crawl along, there is some promise of a return to normal. Vaccine distribution has begun and somehow physical distancing and mask wearing has become commonplace, if not fashionable – my son prefers wearing his ninja gingerbread man mask to school each day.
As admissions and enrollment professionals enter the business time of the year, it might feel counterintuitive and even imprudent to begin preparing for next year. However, if the Pulaski Academies of the world showed us anything, it’s that it is never too soon to plan for what’s next.
So, has admissions and enrollment changed forever? Yes and no. Below are some ways in which things remain the same and some ways in which they have changed – along with some practical next steps to address those changed things that require new and creative solutions.
Has What Matters to Families Changed?
No, it hasn’t – what really matters, still really matters
The top priorities for families have not changed. Will my child be challenged? Will they be mentored? Will they be safe? Can we afford to attend the school? And beyond those central concerns, the power of your school’s mission, vision, and values that distinguish you has not changed.
Yes, it has – you have to talk differently about what really matters
Many schools rely on athletics, clubs, abroad experiences, etc. to help form the culture of the place. Will all of these return in 2021? Maybe. But we can’t know. The challenge is to find the thing behind the activity. For instance, what inherent value is there in being on the soccer team? Is it dealing with failure? Is it teamwork? If that’s the case, how are failure/success and teamwork incorporated into other aspects of your students’ experience? Do your website, emails, and marketing materials reflect these big ideas?
PRACTICAL NEXT STEP
Take a survey of your newly enrolled families this year (both parents and students). Why did they choose your school? You might be surprised at what they tell you. Make sure the answers are multiple choice but also allow for “Other comments.” You might need to incentivize responses. A $5 Starbucks gift card goes a long way.
Has The Importance of Campus Visits Changed?
No, it hasn’t – People want to come on campus before deciding what school to attend
In the same way that most people would never buy a house without seeing it in person, few applicants would ever decide their school without seeing the campus.
Yes, it has – “Seeing” the campus has changed
Virtual admissions centers aren’t going anywhere. If nothing else, it allows you to expand those top–of–funnel families. Many families wouldn’t visit in person until they’ve selected your school as a finalist. With virtual tours, anyone can “visit” your school at any time.
PRACTICAL NEXT STEP
You’ve likely invested in virtual tours and digital materials in 2020. Double that investment in 2021. Perhaps you moved quickly and your virtual tour was done with an iPhone. Add to your video library. Spend this summer adding more or better videos of classrooms, athletic fields, the theater, etc. Ask your current students to give a tour using their phone. Professionalism and authenticity are not contradictory or mutually exclusive.
Has the Power of In-Person Interactions Changed?
No, it hasn’t — People will always be your greatest evangelists
Your campus can be hugely influential in an applicant’s decision to attend your school, but nothing compares to a current student talking about their experience at the school with an applicant. Likewise, strong academic programs are essential, but still pale in comparison to a skilled admissions counselor that takes the time to invest in and patiently listen to an applicant’s story.
Yes, it has – The power of people is (digitally) exponential
The most meaningful interactions any applicant has is with your students, faculty, and staff. But 2020 showed schools these interactions can be done virtually, or even through recorded meetings. There’s nothing like in-person conversations; however, tools like Zoom and Skype can be used to increase the number of families you connect with.
PRACTICAL NEXT STEPS
Whether we like it or not, Zoom isn’t going anywhere. Continue to offer virtual one-on-one interviews and meetings. This is especially helpful for working parents. Offer them during the day and night. Find your school’s best evangelists and ask them to set aside time once a week or month for a virtual “fireside chat.” Maybe this is your head of school. Maybe it’s your biology teacher. Your goal should be finding ways to expose your best, most articulate people to as many prospects as possible. Make sure you track digital vs. in-person visits to measure its effectiveness.