COVID-19 Higher Education Marketing

Your Best Recruitment Strategy Right Now? Focus on Your Current Students

A woman wearing a backpack walks a path alongside a large, gothic university building.

By Peter Toran \ March 19, 2020

Right now, the best thing you can do for your fall 2020 recruitment may be to forget about your fall 2020 recruitment.

Catchy subject lines in your recruitment emails? Time to edit.

National College Decision Day? Take a pass.

Student orientation as a conversion tactic? Your state has probably made that decision for you.

Of course, you can’t afford (literally) to forget about recruitment. But the best strategy in these uncertain and unprecedented times can’t be repeating what you’ve done before, regardless of how successful you were.

Instead, your institution will be better served by keeping these three tactics front of mind.

Focus on retention.

Retention has always played a key role in any cohesive enrollment management plan. And for obvious reasons: A recent study by University Business found that the cost ratio between recruiting a new student and retaining an existing student can be as high as $5,460 to $35. Translation: It can cost 15,600% more to recruit a new student than to retain a current one.

But those numbers aren’t really the point. In these times, the bottom line can’t be about finances. It’s got to be about mission and values.

When you enroll a student, you’re doing more than cashing their tuition checks. You’re entering into a relationship — one you hope will last for two, three or four years (or however long it takes). If anyone at your institution questions that, they should look at your recruitment materials, which likely include inspiring student success stories and moving features about famous alumni.

But chances are, your materials don’t cover what happens when classes move totally online, dorms shut down, and students are (again, literally) sent packing. Now’s the time for the real U.

Specific steps you should be taking:

  • Make sure your website emergency alert function is working and updated daily.
  • Create a dynamic landing page or coronavirus microsite and update it regularly and at least daily; link to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
  • Create targeted communications for international students.
  • Include links on the microsite to local city, county, and state sites and to area transportation hubs.
  • Include parents on your email communications to students, faculty, and staff. Set up some process (Facebook group; online chat) where parents’ questions can be responded to within 24 hours.

Take the opportunity to “show, don’t tell.”

Now’s the time to follow the marketing truism of “show, don’t tell.”

How you deal with your current students will tell prospective students more about your university than any viewbook, email or webinar ever could. And they’ll be watching. If someone is considering your school, they’re on your website. And they’re not just on the prospective student pages, they’re checking out everything about you, including how you’re handling this challenge.

What are you doing for graduation? What about refunds for dorm expenses? Can spring 2020 students drop out without penalty as classes move online?

That’s a lot of questions. How you answer them may well determine how close you come to your 2020 recruitment goals. And it’s fine to acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, but that you’ll continue to communicate — anxiety increases when there’s no information at all.

Specific steps you should be taking:

  • Make sure current student issues and questions are addressed on your coronavirus microsite.
  • Provide sample online classes for students who haven’t taken online classes and aren’t familiar with your LMS.
  • Tell prospective students what you’re doing, provide a link to the microsite, and let them test your LMS. In short, treat prospective students like current students.

Be flexible and break with tradition.

Of immediate concern to prospective students: What changes are you making to your admissions processes? Is May 1 still your acceptance date? What about high school students who may not graduate as planned, through no fault of their own, or who have difficulty getting their transcripts?

Throw out the old rules and make new ones. Better yet: Let exceptions be the rule.

There are already early adopters. Here’s a message from Temple:

Temple University Social Media Sponsored post

Specific steps you should be taking:

  • Contact all suspects/prospects in your funnel and update them about revised due dates, changes in your policies, etc.
  • Acknowledge the situation on the Admission homepage. Explain what you’re doing to make what was already a stressful situation — applying to college — and that’s now unbelievably stressful situation, easier to get through.
  • If you have a Parents webpage, make sure it links to your coronavirus pages; don’t make frantic parents search for this information.

No single tactic or approach is “the answer” in dealing with a situation no one could have realistically predicted just weeks ago. But if you could only do one thing: take care of your current students. That’s the best indicator that prospective students have in these times about how you’ll work with them in a future that none of us can predict.

And it may prove to be the most effective fall 2020 enrollment strategy you could follow.

Peter Toran is a lead strategist at idfive and former Vice President of Communications and Planning at the University of Baltimore. While at the university, Peter supervised the university’s marketing, advertising, web relations, social media, public and media relations, and crisis management and special events.
Peter Toran
Lead Strategist
Peter Toran
Lead Strategist

Peter is unequivocally the coolest person in the office. Having served in university leadership and on executive boards, Peter has a lot of experience in a lot of areas. And he helps gain our clients’ trust and support from Day One. Peter is also an expert on enrollment and content strategy and institutional branding and communications. There’s nothing this guy can’t do, but he’s exceptionally good at bringing us artisanal bread on Friday’s paired with well-baked puns.