Coronavirus and Enrollment Management

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John W. Dysart
The Dysart Group

Colleges and universities are being devastated by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every sector of the national economy has been adversely impacted. Keep the following in mind as enrollment managers prepare for the immediate future:

  • Cancel group visit days scheduled on campus for at least the next six weeks.
  • Cancel admission counselor travel for the immediate future.
  • Cancel individual student and family visits to campus for the next six weeks. If possible, direct families to your website for a virtual campus visit.
  • Extend the deadline for refundable enrollment deposits past the general May 1 date. Some colleges are offering refundable deposits for as late as June and July.
  • Continue communication outreach to admission applicants via telephone and text messaging. Use the opportunity to update applicants and their families on any changes in policy or process and to wish them well.
  • Many of your prospective students will no longer have the benefits of a campus visit to inform their final decision. Systematic communication is essential to assist families in decision making.
  • It is critical to provide frequent updates and be honest in how the pandemic is affecting your campus and your admission process.
  • Begin communication now about how the student experience for Fall 2020 might change for students:
    • Detail any new cleaning protocols on your campus.
    • Explain any new health resources to be available on campus.
    • Even if the virus declines in the Summer, prepare your plans now for how you will react if it reoccurs in the Fall and Winter.
  • Financial aid awarding should continue, even if packages must be sent remotely. Targeted access is going to be more important than ever. So many Americans are experiencing a rapid reduction in assets. The stock market has dropped more than 30% in a matter of days. School and business closings have resulted in an extraordinary number of layoffs. Many of those laid off, or who have had their work schedules reduced, have stopped receiving paychecks. It was reported that nearly 3,300,000 people applied for unemployment benefits in a single week. The financial repercussions are devastating for students and their families.
  • Plan how you will deal with high schools unable to send transcripts.
  • There may be significant differences in state solutions for all of the school days students are missing.
  • There are accreditation restrictions on your credit options for your currently enrolled students.
  • Offer flexibility with standardized test requirements for late test takers. You may wish to move to a temporary test optional status for at least Fall 2020.
  • Count on many institutions accepting greater numbers of students to mitigate expected losses. This means that some of your peer +1 competitors may be enrolling students out of your traditional market.
  • Offer an option for skype communication with admission counselors, faculty and staff.
  • Offer an online campus visit event.
  • Explore new opportunities for additional online offerings for at least the next twelve months.
  • Students and families who have always planned on a residential college experience are now reconsidering. More students are going to consider options for academic programs offered completely online.
  • Keep in mind, however, that some institutions lack the technology and expertise for a quick shift to online education.
  • While most Americans have access to computers and smart technology, some do not. Consider how you might offer online courses to students who do not have easy access to a computer. Even if technology is available in the local area, lock-down rules may make it impossible for some students to get to the technology.
  • Understand that if the situation continues, students will be less likely to enroll at colleges that are not close to home.
  • For institutions that rely on Summer sessions for enrollment revenue, the situation is alarming as many have been forced to cease on-campus summer offerings.
  • Economic changes are likely to create increased financial need. You may want to dedicate additional institutional funds to assist students negatively impacted directly by economic upheaval.
  • The pandemic is impacting state budgets. State financial aid allocations for all colleges and universities and subsidies for public institutions are not guaranteed at current rates as legislatures are forced to address massive revenue shortfalls.
  • Colleges and universities are already forced to make difficult, and sometimes very unpopular, decisions about tuition adjustments to refunds and/or room and board adjustments and refunds. Many institutions just do not have the financial ability to reduce charges or the resources to issue a large number of refunds.
  • The pandemic is creating havoc for students and families, but let’s not forget that professionals working in enrollment management are also being affected. Many have been charged with working at home. Some are facing extended layoffs and not every college and university can afford to pay employees sent home temporarily. In some cases, staff reductions are going to be permanent.
  • It is likely that student enrollment numbers are going to decrease for Fall 2020 for both new and returning students.
  • Significant disruption in international recruitment is a given. Consider that there are currently more than 350,000 Chinese students attending colleges in the United States. It is uncertain when current travel restrictions will be lifted or if additional restrictions will be imposed.
  • Congress just passed new legislation that has components to assist higher education:
    • Federal student loan repayments will be suspended for six months.
    • More than $6 billion has been set aside for institutions and for additional assistance for students.
    • The Department of Education has been allocated $300 million to help colleges and universities.
    • Dollars have been targeted for institutions serving minority populations. It may serve as a real lifeline for some HBCU’s.
  • So many colleges and universities were already under extreme financial stress. The financial impact of the pandemic may push some schools over the edge. Some institutions will not recover.

It is impossible to predict the ultimate outcome of the pandemic for colleges and universities. There are, however, a few steps that enrollment managers can take to mitigate the impact.

Higher education has survived recessions, a depression, war and more. Over the next weeks planning, discussion and communication will be vitally important.

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