Opinion: Lessons learned marketing higher education in a pandemic

Posted online

Reaching 17- and 18-year-olds with an authentic story that resonates with them has never been easy. Any parent can tell you how hard it often is to get young adults to think about next week, let alone the long-term arc of their lives and careers in order to make decisions about where – or whether – to go to college.

Now, add a pandemic and subsequent widespread economic uncertainty to the mix, and you have a vexing dilemma.

Institutions of higher education know they have to lean on what truly makes the student experience at their school unique in order to win the hearts and minds of future students.

Campus tours, FaceTime with faculty members, overnight stays in residence halls and conversations with current students have a powerful way of getting high school students to imagine themselves on a college campus. You can see the light in many students’ eyes when they visit a university campus for the first time.

But the pandemic means colleges have been largely forced to tell, rather than show. How do you connect with students and families when key messages from the usual tactics are simply not available? Here is what we found.

Real talk
At Drury University, we already hosted virtual panel discussions with prospective students before the pandemic began, as we draw students from across the Midwest and the nation. We’ve gone from four a year to one per month. Although many of us are facing Zoom fatigue these days, real connections can still happen virtually, so long as you keep it authentic. Our panels feature real students answering real questions from prospective students in real time. They’re hosted by one of our admissions counselors who is a recent Drury alumna.

The first such panel we hosted after the pandemic forced colleges to vacate their campuses was the subject of a feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education – which noted just how normal the conversations were. Prospective students wanted to know about cafeteria food and social life. They’re looking past the pandemic. The lesson was that even when the world is upside down, your audience is often still focused on their own needs.

Networks work
Some of our best ideas have come from others in our sector. When limited capacities cut the number of campus visitors we could host during our normal business hours in the spring, we took a page from colleagues at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, which extended its hours for evening tours. “Drury at Dusk” has been well received and gives us a chance to continue to show off our campus to more than 30 families safely and effectively.

For a few, this was the only window of time they could make work anyway – even absent the pandemic. What was a small nudge away from normal for us turned out to make all the difference in getting the undivided attention of additional potential students.

Beyond transactional
The college selection process isn’t an easy one to navigate in the best of times. The pandemic has added a new layer of anxiety. We’ve doubled down on the message that our team can help students navigate the system and give some direction on figuring how to find the right college fit for them.

Starting with a helping hand rather than a hard pitch allows us to present not only Drury, but also higher education at large, as what it truly should be: one of the most powerful and lasting ways to change someone’s life and career for the better.

Like any product, marketing higher education can begin to feel transactional – run enough Google ads, make enough phone calls and your enrollment numbers will go up. But unlike a tangible product, higher education is not just an exchange of goods and services. It’s transformational, not transactional. When we embrace the entirety of the student experience, we are at our best. And an authentic self is the best marketing tool there is.

Kevin Kropf is the executive vice president for enrollment management at Drury Univeristy. He can be reached at kkropf@drury.edu.