The First “Digital Only” Admissions Cycle (Part 3)

Elizabeth Farrell |

Former Tambellini Author

Top of Mind: The First “Digital Only” Admissions Cycle Part 3
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

Part 3: Collaborating in the Hunt for Hard-to-Find Applicants

For enrollment leaders, the silver lining to this tumultuous year is that it created room for them to experiment and try out new strategies and technology tools, as we noted in Part 1 of this blog series: Early Hurdles and Predictions. Admissions staff could no longer travel or have in-person interactions with prospective applicants, so they had unexpected resources—in both team members and budgetary funds—available to reallocate in new ways. 

With this opportunity, however, came some of the biggest challenges of their careers. Virtually every admissions team faced an uphill battle in unchartered territory as they forged ahead in their quest to build a pool of prospective Fall 2021 applicants at the top of the recruitment funnel. In Part 2: Finding and Filling the Top of the Funnel, we showed how they were leaning more heavily into digital recruitment tools to adapt to the shift in circumstances and new constraints.

Part three of our series focuses on the targeted strategies that enrollment managers use to attract specific groups of applicants: international students and students from historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Challenging Times Get Harder

Beyond meeting their enrollment goals for total numbers of applicants, admissions leaders also have target numbers for attracting applicants from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, low-income backgrounds, and those who would be the first in their families to attend college. 

Finding these students and garnering their interest can be particularly challenging, as many erroneously believe they can’t afford the cost of attendance. One early indication that these concerns are accelerated? The latest data show a 10 percent drop over last year in the number of high school seniors completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). 

Many admissions teams also have targets for recruiting students from countries outside the United States. Institutions have been dealing with declining applicants from abroad for a long time, and the past year has only further complicated their task. Though recent news that President Biden’s proposed student visa plan might brighten their outlook in the future, this announcement’s timing is unlikely to have any sizable impact on applications for Fall 2021.

For both of these often hard-to-reach groups, enrollment leaders typically rely heavily on building applicants’ interest early in the admissions cycle, particularly through in-person events like college fairs and high school visits.

This year, however, admissions teams had to move all of their events online—introductory sessions, discussion panels with enrollment staff, and workshops for applicants’ families, etc. Early on, the “Zoom fatigue” was real: many high school students across the country and abroad spent all day in front of their screens for school, and they weren’t clamoring to spend more time thinking about their education online.

How did admission leaders adapt to this new challenge? They joined forces and partnered with their peer institutions to host online events with the hopes of attracting more attendees.

Virtual Events and Results

Virtual seminars and open houses have long been in the enrollment manager’s toolbox, but holding larger events, like virtual college fairs with groups of institutions where thousands of students may attend, weren’t as popular when other options were available. To scale these events and keep them engaging, admissions teams leaned more into platforms they have used before, including Strivescan and PlatformQ Education.

At San Diego State University, AVP of Enrollment Management, Stefan Hyman made sure his team participated in virtual events hosted by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), which used Strivescan, and regional events hosted by the California State College and University (CSCU) system. From September through the end of December, San Diego State participated in over 750 virtual events, some attracting over 1,300 online attendees.

These events were particularly effective in reaching the broadest group of students early on and educating them about how the college application process works.

“We’re finding that because of the exceptional circumstances this year, it has created some gaps in students’ understanding of how the college application process works,” says Hyman. “Particularly for first-generation college students and those from low-income backgrounds, it’s important that we reach them early to not only educate them about our institution but how to navigate the search process overall.”

Though it’s too early to know the outcome of these efforts, institutions are encouraged by how their teaming up efforts have paid off thus far, largely because they have been strategic in how they chose their partner institutions.

Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, has traditionally focused on attracting students from abroad as part of their recruitment strategy. When Lukman Arsalan began his role as Dean of Admission in August 2020, his first step in devising a pandemic international recruitment strategy was to analyze the college’s historical admissions data to determine which institutions that international students most frequently attended instead of Franklin and Marshall. 

His analysis yielded a list of like-minded institutions to target for recruiting partnerships, including several institutions within the University of California system and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In total, he forged successful partnerships with 18 colleges and universities. Over the course of six webinars for international students, these collaborative events attracted 1,200 registrants—far more than they would have attracted had they done it on their own.

“The results thus far have been really promising,” says Arsalan. “A lot of these activities allowed us to diversify our geographical reach both domestically and abroad and gain greater exposure. Overall, it’s allowed us to do more and do it well.”

Stay tuned for part four of this series, when we’ll look at the various ways admissions teams are personalizing communications and engagement for students further down the admission funnel—the ones who have already applied or been accepted to their institution.

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Elizabeth Farrell |
Former Tambellini Author
Elizabeth Farrell is an award-winning communications leader with a proven track record of success in delivering high-impact results for national and global colleges and universities, Fortune 100 companies, dynamic start-ups, and influential nonprofits. She has collaborated closely with higher education institutions over the past two decades in numerous roles including media relations, branding, marketing, business development, and as a journalist for outlets including The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Wall Street Journal, and PBS Newshour.

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