University Marketers: Can Your Institution Answer These 10 COVID-Related Questions?

By Peter Toran \ May 13, 2020

Let’s skip the obligatory “in these challenging times” and cut right to the chase: This will be the toughest summer for university communications teams that any of us can remember. Forget “challenging,” try “impossible.” As a team that, like you, is committed to transparent messaging, we feel your pain.

Whatever your plans had been for the dog days — create next year’s recruitment campaign, update the style guide, purge your website of decades-old content — there are more pressing issues at hand. What does outdated content matter when you can’t tell students if, when, and how fall classes will be held?

Although most, if not all, of the major COVID-19 questions need to be answered by deans, provosts and presidents, how those answers are framed will literally impact the institution’s bottom line, as prospective students and their parents try to make sense from the nonsensical.  

Consistent campus messaging matters now more than ever.

If you’re fortunate enough to be at an institution where the communications team has a seat at the executive table, speak up and be heard. If not, this may be your opportunity to step up: your colleagues are likely to welcome any help they can get to deliver not-so-great news in the best light possible.

Here’s a Top Ten List of questions from students and parents that colleges and universities will need to address during the COVID-19 summer.  

10. Is the University liable if I contract the virus on campus?

Like it or not, we live in litigious times. If a university makes the decision to return to full operations, is it legally — if not ethically — responsible to ensure student safety? Faculty and staff safety will also be an issue, but one that will be addressed (or not) through workers’ compensation claims. 

This is a particularly thorny issue for residential campuses, with dormitories veritable Petri dishes for spreading the disease. Will students be required to sign a release form to live on campus? Will state safety practices be mandated for public institutions? Can you use “social distancing” and “frat party” in the same sentence?

With class-action suits for spring tuition reimbursement already in motion, it’s important to get ahead of this issue. Even if colleges are granted immunity from COVID-related prosecution, as some are calling for, the legal question isn’t going away.      

9. What is the dining service vendor doing differently this fall?

If restaurants are required to limit seating, what does that mean for food service operations that serve hundreds of meals at least three times a day? 

Responses implemented during the spring semester at some campuses — to-go orders only; recyclable containers; altered hours of operation; enhanced kitchen cleaning — may become the norm. Whether students are willing to pay the same price for those services is another matter. 

8. Why should I pay the full student fee when student life offerings have been curtailed?

COVID-19 will shine a light on the murky details of the catch-all “student fees.” Since 2000, student fees have increased at a higher percentage rate than tuition. And because there’s no standard for what student fees are applied to — everything from supporting sports programs to financing future campus construction to paying for graduation — students and parents generally absorb the added expense as the normal cost of business.

But what happens if student fees pay for sports programs that are suspended or held without spectators? If other student activities and amenities are cut back, will fees be adjusted accordingly?  

7. What medical staff and services have you added for fall?

A fair concern. 

If nothing else, it’s logical to expect institutions to provide appropriate personal protective equipment, thermometers and additional hand sanitizer dispensers across campus. And if we expect grocery stores and shopping malls to have cashier guards and floor markings, we’ll expect the same practices from student service offices, the library, bookstore, and other high-traffic locations. 

6. Is there a chance classes could be canceled halfway through the fall semester?

The short and easy answer: yes. The real question is, what then? 

As challenging as the spring cancellation was, most institutions were able to use spring break to close campus operations, transition to online teaching platforms, and, in the case of residential campuses, move students out. 

But preparing campuses for an in-person coronavirus fall semester — which even under the best-case scenario won’t be “normal” — only to have to reverse course in October or November is another thing altogether. While the fall-back response is along the lines of “We’ll always put the safety of our students and campus community first,” are contingency plans in place to cover this scenario? Did faculty enhance their online offerings even though the semester started face-to-face? 

It’s one thing for students to accept the disaster response from spring and tolerate less-than-optimal online learning. With months to prepare, expectations for the fall will be higher.

5. If a student in a class tests positive for the virus, will everyone in that class — including the faculty member — be required to quarantine?

Although there’s talk of limiting large lecture classes and implementing proper social distancing in all classes, there’s no sure-fire guarantee that no one will  become infected (current data suggests the opposite, that it’s more likely that someone will contract the disease at some point). 

What then? Will campuses have sufficient access to the contact-tracing expertise they’ll need to make informed decisions on how to proceed? Extend this question to residential campuses and dorm residents, and the challenge grows exponentially.

4. What are you doing to make dormitories safe? And if you cancel in-person classes again, when I can expect my housing refund check?

Residential campuses face an unenviable task this fall as they try to fill multiple roles that, in themselves, are challenging enough; together they may prove to be overwhelming. The most problematic? Their assumed role as hotelier.

Will all students be guaranteed single rooms, as some universities are considering? What about bathrooms? Will you hire additional staff to sanitize dorms on a regular (daily?) basis? 

What happens if someone contracts the virus? Will students in the surrounding area — or on that floor, or in that building — be quarantined? And what happens if there’s another mid-semester shutdown? Last spring, many students and parents ended up paying full housing costs for rooms they weren’t allowed to occupy. Their tolerance for taking that financial hit a second time is sure to be low-to-nonexistent.

These issues may call into question why universities are in the housing business in the first place. University-supplied housing is a uniquely U.S. phenomenon, one that some suspect is rooted more in revenue-generation than in student success. The results of a 2014 study — which found a 72% increase in the cost of public four-year college housing compared to a 5% increase for housing in the broader economy — does little to dispel that notion.  

3. What accommodations can you make regarding the timing of tuition payments?

With national unemployment rates at the highest point since the Great Depression, a significant number of students and their parents have had to abandon the college budgeting they put in place just a few months ago. How will your institution respond?

Some early adopters have already announced measures to ease the financial stress: Davidson is offering a deferred payment plan, in which fall 2020 tuition bills don’t have to be paid until August 2021. Of course, that means families face a double bill next August, and the tactic is also a way to increase retention — why transfer when you still owe money? — but it’s a proactive strategy aimed at dealing with today’s pain.   

2. What is your deposit refund policy?

Most institutions have pushed back the so-called National College Decision Day to June 1. But it’s highly unlikely that colleges and universities will be in a position to announce firm fall plans on or around that time. How can students and parents be expected to put down non-refundable deposits to secure a place in a yet-to-be-determined learning environment, especially in light of the financial hardships many are facing?  

1. If classes are fully or partially online, will you decrease tuition? 

More than any other, this single question captures the essence of the COVID-19 higher education dilemma. 

If online education is truly as good as (and some would argue better than) traditional classroom learning, then the tuition argument becomes moot. Unfortunately, many within academe — faculty and university presidents alike — are saying the opposite.

In a New York Times op-ed, Brown University President Christina Paxson asserts that college campuses must reopen in the fall, citing, among other reasons, “the fierce intellectual debates that just aren’t the same on Zoom.” But what refunds can Brown students expect for a partial semester devoid of that fierce intellectual climate? None. 

That’s not an indictment. Even wealthy, elite institutions like Brown are facing financial pressures — albeit pressures cushioned by, in Brown’s case, a $4.2 billion endowment — and there’s yet to be a wholesale move towards tuition reimbursement for an online curriculum that was admittedly rushed, if not substandard. 

But you can’t have it both ways. 

If your offerings “just aren’t the same,” tuition shouldn’t be either. Just another reason why college marcom teams need to spend the summer keeping their institution’s messaging consistent, honest, and attuned to the moment — especially “in these challenging times.” 

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.