Enrollment Management in a Pandemic Year

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Tracey Dysart-Ford
Vice President for Enrollment
Defiance College

Tracey Dysart-Ford
Vice President for Enrollment
Defiance College

This has been an unprecedented year in enrollment management as the pandemic changed everything.  Colleges and universities were forced to make adjustments and modifications on the fly to adapt to new realities.  So many obstacles, challenges and upheaval!

Defiance College in Ohio was certainly not immune from the altered landscape.  Fortunately, the leadership team recognized the need for an abrupt change of course and somehow, we survived.  Whew!

An Incident Command Team was created in March to address multiple issues.  The team was charged with a number of tasks:

  • Ordering safety supplies and cleaning products;
  • The creation of a communication plan to keep currently enrolled, prospective students and their parents informed regarding the latest developments;
  • Maintaining a close relationship with the local health department;
  • Monitoring guidance, restrictions and best practices advocated by Ohio officials, as well as the White House and Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

The safety of our students, faculty and staff was the number one priority.  We met several times a week which insured that we are all on the same page and protecting our campus.

Specific steps were introduced to alter past enrollment management practices:

  • Representatives in the Financial Aid Office actively solicited appeals to address the extraordinary financial impact of the pandemic on families and additional funds were allocated to ensure access for all prospective and newly enrolled students;
  • Major adjustments were made to our website to tout new visit opportunities and to keep everyone informed about the latest news and updates;
  • Defiance College transitioned from on campus visits to virtual visits; 
  • Zoom sessions often replaced financial aid inquires previously addressed by telephone to enhance personal attention to concerns;
  • Video tours replaced traditional campus visit tours; 
  • The entire orientation process was revamped to be conducted virtually;
  • Personal intervention by admissions staff, coaches and faculty made for a successful orientation process;
  • Gift boxes with t-shirts and other goodies were sent to every student participating in orientation;
  • Changes were made to residence hall placements;
  • Cleaning protocols in the residence halls were significantly increased and disinfecting practices added;
  • What was once a succinct process for students at the start of the term turned into multiple days of socially distanced move-in activities.

The virus impacted other divisions on campus including academics.  Moving to an online schedule was no easy task: 

  • Our faculty spent their spring break changing to an online format;
  • Adjustments were made to course plans for digital format;
  • Faculty kept in touch with our students via telephone calls and online meetings. 

We knew this would be a big change and students had to adjust. One-on-one attention was never more powerful than this year.  For example, at the end of the Spring term, usual business needed to be completed.

Faculty went above and beyond for graduation.  While we held a virtual ceremony, faculty personally delivered diplomas to students at their homes in a socially distant format.  Students in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana received personally delivered diplomas; students in states further away received their diplomas by mail in order to honor travel advisories important to health.  The faculty dedication to our students was demonstrated in front lawns instead of at the ceremony site on the day scheduled for Commencement. Through this time, many of us found ourselves at a loss at move-in as we had only met prospective students virtually during the previous months.  For small colleges, that all-important feeling that students and families get when they step foot on our campus was not the same.  What a joy it was to meet our new students in person.  We recognized their voices as we had talked with them all year.  We celebrated our new and returning students with balloons, gift bags from our president and her husband and a carefully spaced move-in from morning to evening for multiple days to keep everyone safe.  Meeting our students in person was the best feeling in the world!

In times like these, a productive team approach is paramount.  For my Enrollment Management Team, we had fun being creative, rethinking our strategies and tactics and focusing on aggressive personal attention with our prospective students to mitigate melt and increase enrollment.  We learned that college admission and financial aid as we knew it had changed forever.

The proof of a successful team endeavor is in the outcomes:

  • Defiance College increased freshmen enrollment this year by 20%.
  • The College posted the largest enrollment in five years, despite the pandemic.
  • Graduate student enrollment grew by 55%.
Dr. Richanne C. Mankey
Defiance College

Institutional transformation of the kind described here would not have been possible without strong leadership at the top.  That is the college president.  Dr. Richanne C. Mankey gave us the go ahead to do things differently and to take chances.  She coordinated the institutional response and encouraged everyone as we navigated a long road characterized by uncertainty.  In a recent campus update, Dr. Mankey said, “We continue to run a marathon race that has no designated finish line.  My oft used quote from Robert Frost continues to inform our circumstance: ‘The only way out is through.’” 

I received nothing but freedom to innovate and felt a trust from my president in such a difficult time.  I am blessed as many of you are to have a great president.  Dr. Richanne C. Mankey showed grace, courage and support like no other.  It is in times like these that we all need to step back and say thank you to one of the greatest heroes in a pandemic:  the college or university president.  I hope you take some time to thank your leader too.

Congratulations to my colleagues.  We made it!  Thank you to our college and university presidents!  You were there when we needed you!

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