College admissions strategies for attracting COVID-era students

Focus on the Basics in Virtual Tours

I recently finished a college counseling meeting over Zoom with a student graduating from high school in Hong Kong. She was excited to have completed the college admissions process successfully but somewhat frustrated by the fact that she—like her sister, one year older and who enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, last year—would have to make her final college choice sight unseen. Despite our optimism at the outset of her college search, pandemic conditions and travel constraints have worsened in recent months to the extent that she will be unable to visit the two campuses that are her top choices this spring.

Though perhaps a more extreme case given her international location, she is like many students I have been advising through COVID times. She has had to rely significantly on virtual tours and information sessions, and online program research, in addition to input from me and her school counselor, in formulating her list, revising it, submitting applications and now selecting her destination.

What have this student and other counselees been asking about throughout their college search? What has been most important to them? It turns out, some very similar things that students have long been interested in, with some added focus on travel, health, safety and cost.

When I talk with students about selecting colleges, I focus broadly on what kind of college experience they are looking for—that is, where will they be happy, successful and able to thrive and grow into the person they see themselves becoming. Fundamentally, students want to know where they will live, where they will eat, what and where they will learn, and with whom they will be living and learning.

Campus Tours: In Person, Virtual … and Delayed

The recent 2,001-respondent Student Voice survey, covering student experiences with virtual and in-person tours, dramatically illustrates these emphases and shows the importance of colleges focusing on the basic, core elements of the college experience when presenting their campus and programs to families.

According to the Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey, conducted in late February and early March with support from Kaplan, students viewing virtual tours appreciate the interactive maps many colleges are offering, but they want to see more videos of residence halls (72 percent), dining halls (66 percent) and classrooms (60 percent). Those who viewed virtual tours reported seeing these elements in the videos at far lower rates, from 40 percent for residence halls to just 24 percent for dining halls and 15 percent for classrooms.

Even taking all these findings with a grain of salt, they do show where students are seeking more knowledge. Students are trying to visualize themselves as college students, and when they do that, they are thinking about their dorm rooms (and the people they might be rooming with), walking to class, and getting lunch.

Clearly, students were touring campuses in person less often during the pandemic: 44 percent of students whose admissions process happened during COVID went on tours, compared to 68 percent of students already in college in spring 2020, according to this survey. A silver lining of the pandemic has been the expansion of more and better online content, yet just 11 percent of COVID-impacted students did only virtual tours, compared to 3 percent of their already-in-college peers. Only 12 percent reported doing both virtual and campus tours during COVID, compared to 8 percent of students further along in their studies.

One-quarter of the full survey sample reported not touring their current college campus at all, in person or virtually, prior to enrolling. One might take issue with what is identified as a “virtual tour,” as some students spend a great deal of time browsing a college’s website, scanning through social media posts on various platforms, watching videos on YouTube, attending virtual college fairs and so on, and might not consider that a formal “tour.”

A key impact during the pandemic that I saw firsthand with students was their inability to travel to campuses prior to applying to colleges, or their decision not to do campus tours until after admissions offers were made.

Students don’t know what a 2,000-student, small liberal arts college in a small town or rural environment really feels like. They underestimate just how big a typical flagship public research university can be. They don’t know how urban is too urban, or how “traditional” or “artsy” or “diverse” or “homogenous” or “sporty” a place they are looking for.

This is problematic for multiple reasons. First and foremost, students’ (and parents’) preferences are dynamic, not static. They typically develop and evolve through the college search process. Students don’t know what a 2,000-student, small liberal arts college in a small town or rural environment really feels like. They underestimate just how big a typical flagship public research university can be, in terms of the size of the physical space and total student body. They don’t know how urban is too urban, or how “traditional” or “artsy” or “diverse” or “homogenous” or “sporty” a place they are looking for. Yet.

Delays in Development Toward the College Transition

I have been noticing that many students in the several classes most impacted by the pandemic seem to be a year or two delayed in their journey on the developmental arc that students typically navigate during their high school years and transition toward college. Admissions officers should be aware that this delay likely reaches down into the next several classes of students, even though they were not juniors or seniors—peak times for college admissions activities—during the height of the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the pandemic and its disruptions continue. Students in grades six through 10 missed out on, and will continue to avoid or be prevented from doing, many experiences and opportunities for growth and development that build the foundation for later college planning. These include summer camps, family trips, summer jobs, youth sports and tournaments for such activities as chess, debate, Model United Nations, Model Congress and DECA. Students may also be missing gatherings for groups such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as well as summer enrichment programs sponsored by local community-based organizations, colleges, boarding schools and national nonprofits.

These students can recover and, despite the ongoing pandemic, still experience some of these before they reach their junior year of high school, but they can’t easily get that time and those key developmental experiences back. I do believe that is true for students of all backgrounds and income levels, though less advantaged students are likely to be most at risk of not ever getting on the path to college at all. And as a recent Washington Post article documented, colleges nationwide are already facing a loss of some one million students, or a 5 percent enrollment decline, since 2019.

Many middle and high school students have also been traumatized by COVID and the ensuing social and financial upheavals. They have lost family members, including beloved grandparents and other extended family; they have been sick themselves, losing valuable class time and socializing opportunities with peers; they have been uprooted from their homes and lost family income.

A fall 2020 Healthy Minds Network survey documented the historically high prevalence of depression and anxiety among college students. The college process itself is no walk in the park—it is more competitive, confusing, unpredictable and stress-provoking than ever. With admission rates historically high at a select group of institutions and wildly unpredictable at many others, games being played with merit aid, test-optional and test-blind policies, early-decision and early-action plans and pressures, and a loosening of NACAC’s Code of Ethics and Professional Practices, it’s no wonder that students are stymied by many of the challenges associated with college selection.

In the Student Voice survey, 17 percent of four-year college students said they’d made enrollment deposits at two or more schools. This finding leaves those in higher ed wondering: Is this tactical or underhanded, or do they just not understand the rules?

Support for Prospects, Applicants and Accepted Students

Colleges would do well to continue to bulk up their online content and visiting opportunities, in addition to doing everything they can to attract students to campus, facilitate their visits and make those visits substantive and worthwhile. Although, according to the Inside Higher Ed survey, some 89 percent of students arrive at college with a major in mind (how many apply with a major in mind could be different), 40 percent of these students reported changing their minds after starting college.

Nevertheless, most students I work with do indeed have some very particular academic strengths and potential interests they would like to pursue, and they would like to know how they will study those areas at schools of interest (along with what other requirements they’ll need to complete).

Visiting campuses is expensive, particularly if that travel involves a flight and/or a hotel stay. Most students are not equipped to travel and visit schools some distance away on their own. They will need a parent, other family member, school counselor, community-based organization, family friend or other adult to help them plan and make the trips.

That’s particularly true in COVID times. Students are applying to college prospectively, hoping to open up options for colleges they can see in person during senior spring.

Some of those double depositors are holding spots until they can make a visit. Thus, colleges would be wise not to underestimate the importance not only of virtual tours, but also online information sessions, panel discussions with current students and faculty, specialized programs for key areas of interest (like business, engineering, health sciences or the arts), and a high-quality, easy-to-access website.

This article appeared in Inside Higher Education, April 14, 2022