As the world adjusts to the uncertainty prompted by COVID-19, colleges and universities are facing an increasing challenge connecting with prospective students and need to find effective ways to connect and communicate value.
Creating a Connection During Social Distancing
While the many difficulties facing elementary and high schools have made front-page news, the unique expectations and cyclical nature of higher education create distinct challenges that demand their own set of solutions. In particular, the challenges in recruiting a new class of students must be addressed and adapted for this new reality.
Choosing a college is a very personal decision based on a variety of factors specific to each individual. Traditionally, universities have relied on college fairs, in-person visits, alumni networking, and campus tours to connect with prospective students to give them a feeling for the character and assets of a particular institution. Now that a worldwide public health emergency has created uncertainty and new safety regulations that disrupt the traditional college model, colleges and universities must quickly adapt to find safe ways to connect with prospective students and give them the information without requiring in-person interaction.
Understanding the Prospective Student
My team and I have worked directly with many rising seniors looking at traditional four-year undergraduate institutions and have developed a set of recommendations to help demonstrate how institutions can show their value while in-person visits are not an option. These recommendations were compiled prior to the onset of the pandemic, and what we will discuss here are those that we believe are most relevant to addressing the challenges higher education is facing today.
The first step for any institution looking to refine its outreach is to conduct research with the different types of individuals who might be looking at the school. One way to develop a stronger understanding of the target audience’s wants, needs, pain points, and behaviors is to put together informed user personas, using data collected from conversations with representative audience members. Personas are a snapshot archetype—a high level list of informed generalizations about a category of audience member that outlines their behaviors, attitudes, aptitudes, goals, needs, wants, and roadblocks. By identifying personas likely to be looking at their school, the institution can target its educational and community strategies to meet their needs and communicate those strategies effectively.
Fine-tuning Websites as the Primary Marketing Tool
With on-site visits, campus tours, and other high-touch, personalized outreach options unavailable, the first opportunity schools have to connect with prospective students right now is their website. More than ever before, it’s essential that the website provide an exceptional experience for visitors, in terms of usability and usefulness.
A common misstep that colleges and universities make is creating a website that reflects stakeholder values rather than meeting the actual needs of prospective students. For example, a common mistake is using too much undefined academic jargon. Student knowledge about degree and program terminology can be unexpectedly lacking: students may not know the type of degree they are seeking (bachelor’s) and will instead look for a “major” or a “minor.” The confusion can be exacerbated when there are multiple colleges within a single university; some students have difficulty determining where their intended major “lives” and end up getting lost or abandoning the site altogether, assuming that the school cannot meet their academic needs. When they seek to answer questions about degree programs, the learning curve is steeper online than it would be in-person, when context clues found in conversation aren’t available to easily clarify in the moment.
Strive to understand the threshold of prospective student knowledge and meet them where they are—or help them get to where they need to be. Use the digital space as an opportunity to educate students about what they are looking for and where they can find it. Consider making design changes like adjusting the main navigation to make the link to degree programs clearer, or adding explainer text or walkthroughs on the page. These changes will help users who are unfamiliar with the jargon of higher education, without hindering those who already know and understand it.
Be Transparent about Costs and Highlight Value
Higher education is notoriously expensive and many students anticipate going into debt when they pursue an undergraduate or graduate degree. Students want to know what attending college is going to cost them personally, so providing a net price calculator is very helpful. In addition to a personalized estimate of cost, students (and their parents) want to know the value they will receive in exchange for their tuition money—particularly now, while the traditional classroom and on-campus models are in limbo.
A new challenge when it comes to communicating cost and value to prospective students is that students and their families will want to understand if their costs will remain the same if they cannot physically be on campus. What will students receive for their tuition, exactly, especially if students are required to follow classes online from home? One option to consider is offering students flexible options in exchange for the same tuition; for example, the opportunity to take additional classes during break terms without an increase in payment. Schools should also be transparent about whether tuition is going to cover new costs as a result of the pandemic, such as new safety or cleaning measures. Such information should be laid out in plain language on the website, so that prospective students do not need to seek it out.
Give Students an “Insider” Look
Students are aware that school websites are largely geared toward marketing and encouraging prospects to apply. Most prospective students look outside of a college or university for the “real” view of the school to help shape their impression. They are looking for an authentic perspective that is trustworthy and unvarnished. Prior to the pandemic, prospective students looked to blog posts and videos to find this perspective. Now, schools should consider means of showing prospective students how they are helping to foster a sense of community by giving current students a platform to share their experiences. Homemade videos, blog entries, and social media accounts all give a perceived insider view, and colleges should think about ways they might point prospects to “independent” content that might provide that insider take students desire.
Another way to bolster the value of the website is to focus on the imagery provided. Students recognize that the learning environment is important to the educational quality. Even if incoming students may not be starting their college journey on campus due to the pandemic, they hope to be there eventually and still want insights into campus life. Colleges and universities can help students gain an understanding of the classroom environment by using imagery that gives detailed views of labs, classes, lecture halls, and study spaces around campus. Schools also can employ guided 3D virtual tours to provide a view of the campus, which is important to prospects who want to wander at will and explore off the beaten path. Another option to help give prospective students a feel for the environment is to let them “sit in” on a virtual class and meet the professors in a private online conversation afterwards.
Positioning Learning in a Pandemic
Education looks different right now and realistically, no one knows what it will look like during the fall semester. That said, one of the most important tasks for a school’s marketing website today is to position learning, giving insight into the quality of the education prospective students can expect to receive and how the institution will help prepare them for a future career. Academic institutions must demonstrate how they are rising to the challenge and preparing students for success, regardless of whether courses are taught in-person or at a safe distance.
How an institution handles a crisis says a lot of about its values, and how academic institutions adapt to evolving challenges can be a signal to prospective students about the character of the school. Transparency was important to prospective students before the pandemic, and is perhaps even more so in a crisis. Schools need to be as straightforward as possible about what they do and do not know. Remote learning is likely a big part of the strategy for handling this crisis going forward, and schools should treat it like a viable solution, rather than a short-term band-aid. In talking to prospective students, schools should highlight specific measures they are undertaking to ensure online classrooms are delivering value at the same level—or even beyond the level—of traditional in-person classrooms.
While specific careers are not always top-of-mind for high school seniors, it’s important that schools show prospects the supports that they have to put students on the path to a job in their chosen field after graduation. Prospective undergraduates are often passionate about the content of their chosen major but might not yet see a specific career path to follow after graduation. Schools should highlight the ways they will support students’ professional growth throughout their time in school and demonstrate the school’s approach to network-building, including how those approaches can be adjusted or improved upon from a distance. Students see a geographically diverse student body, noteworthy alumni in their chosen field, and flexible coursework targeted to key interest areas as demonstrative of a school that could provide them with opportunities for success, post graduation.
Communicating Value Online
As long as uncertainty persists about how much in-person contact is safe, a school’s website will be one of the most important and effective tools for informing, inspiring, and recruiting prospective students. Schools should be incorporating their “users”—prospective and current students, faculty, staff—into any solution they build; otherwise, they will be building on assumptions. Interviewing and co-creating with these user groups will help schools create solutions that are truly human-centered, and thus more likely to be successful. Those institutions that will succeed during these uncertain times are the ones that use their website and messaging to connect with prospective students’ goals, needs, and desires, and provide a reassuring image of the value students will receive for their tuition dollars.
Through her Master’s coursework at Bentley University, Megan found her passion for human research and design. Before coming to Mad*Pow, Megan worked as a UX Associate at Bentley’s User Experience Center, where she helped conduct usability tests, create wireframes, and make actionable design recommendations for a range of clients. She also interned at Sports Innovation Lab, where she helped prototype their MVP while keeping research goals at the front of the product team’s mind. Outside of her research pursuits, Megan tutors high school students and volunteers with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay.