It’s fair to say that not many in the education sector anticipated that this was what 2020 would look like. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on schools all over the world, and few were fully prepared to deal with the fallout.
The last few months have seen signs of stability returning, with some institutions able to reopen their doors, while others have at least been able to adapt and pivot to online/hybrid learning models to continue delivering classes.
In many ways, the crisis has been something of a wake-up call for schools, a reminder that even the best laid plans can be disrupted by circumstances far beyond their control. It’s likely that those in education will now be more vigilant, cautious, and conscientious in their future planning, taking some of the lessons learned from the pandemic to ultimately change the sector for the better.
What will this future look like? Here are just a few of the key takeaways from 2020, and how they could impact education, admissions, and marketing for schools in the coming years.
1. When the Unexpected Happens, Communication is Key for Schools
The announcement of global lockdowns earlier this year threw the world into chaos, and the education sector felt this as much as everyone else. In simple terms, the question on everyone’s lips was: what happens now?
Current students were anxious to find out if they could still complete their studies, and what form this would take. Students who relied on working or income from family members to fund their education fretted over meeting upcoming payments to continue. And incoming and prospective students wondered when, if, and how they might be able to begin classes.
This presented no small problem to admissions and support staff, who were suddenly inundated with queries at a time when they were also adjusting to the challenges of working from home. The schools that fared best in this situation were the ones who adopted robust communications strategies across a number of channels. They posted COVID-19 updates regularly across their website, responded promptly to questions via social media and email, and went the extra mile to address the concerns of individual prospects and students personally.
Example: The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign was one of many schools that created a dedicated COVID-19 section on their website. These pages provided up-to-the-minute info for affected students, parents, faculty and staff, and academics.
The need to devote resources to communications is something that not all schools have necessarily addressed adequately in the past, and should be a priority going forward regardless of what the future holds. In both good times and bad, being open, responsive, and empathetic with those in your school community can enhance your reputation, improve student recruitment and retention, and simply make interacting with your school a much more pleasant experience.
Having the right tools can make this a lot easier. SIS, CRM and marketing automation, and student application systems can all be utilized to help your team follow up promptly with queries, keep track of the status and situations of individual contacts, and even automate certain processes to lighten the workload.
Given the need for this sort of technological infrastructure was already becoming more necessary in the increasingly digitized world, investing in these systems could be a prudent move for schools who are still lacking in this area.
2. Follow-up is Essential for Recruiting Students During COVID and Beyond
Further to that point, the pandemic also exposed the need for many schools to scale up and better organize their admissions follow-up processes. With physical conversion touchpoints like open days, campus tours, recruitment fairs, and one-on-one interviews curtailed, many schools found it harder recruiting students during COVID.
While some drop in enrollments was unavoidable in the circumstances, some schools were able to compensate for the lack of physical follow-up by doubling down on their remote follow-up efforts.
Taking extra time to call, text, or email each potential applicant gives you a better chance of connecting with them and making the case for your school. With admissions teams likely to remain ‘grounded’ for the foreseeable future, there should be more time for them to scale up these activities.
Again, technology can be a massive help in this situation. CRM and marketing automation systems can be used to log communications with prospects, and even set up follow-up workflows to trigger reminders to staff to make contact with them.
Example: An excerpt from the Contact history of a lead in Mautic by HEM. Here, you can see that a lead signed up for a webinar. This action triggered them to be assigned to a staff member for follow-up, and for an autoresponder to be sent out.
The value of following up with leads aggressively has been evident across the education sector for many years, even before the pandemic made it essential. Whether or not the traditional, more physical side of recruitment returns in the near future, schools would be wise to continue making frequent, personalized follow-up part of their staff’s routine.
3. Online Learning is Here to Stay
When campuses shut down, any school that could turned to online learning as a means to continue their operations. Unfortunately, this was more difficult for some than others.
In certain regions and countries, for instance, institutions were required to seek separate government approvals to deliver online learning, making it impossible for them to operate during lockdown. Other schools which had never offered remote learning before were forced to improvise to deliver rudimentary online versions of their courses.
This created no shortage of teething problems, with inadequate learning management systems, a lack of tools to facilitate connectivity, and instructors who were inexperienced when it came to online course delivery all contributing to a less than optimal experience for students.
This coming semester, schools that are continuing to deliver instruction remotely will have learned the lessons of the early lockdown, and moved to make their systems more robust and their course content more enriching.
Example: On the landing page for its online MBA program, Swiss Business School makes a point of emphasizing the many features offered in its remote LMS.
On the other side of the coin, institutions which handled the transition well will have opened the eyes of students, parents, and their communities at large to the viability of online learning. This may lead to increased demand in the future.
Either way, the emphasis on online learning should not be viewed as a short-term necessity for schools. The format was already becoming more popular even before the crisis, and should now be expected to be a larger part of most schools’ offerings in the long-term.
As a result, it is essential that schools devote time and energy to developing and improving their online offerings, and to attracting prospects who are looking for online learning.
4. A Diverse International Student Recruitment Strategy is Vital for Long-term Security
In a joint article for BizEd, XOLAS’s Mathias Falkenstein and Studyportals’ Thijs van Vugt observed that “even though most b-schools want diversity on campus, more often than not marketers tend to look at the low-hanging fruits and the easiest markets, which bring the largest volumes of students. This strategy may reduce costs, but it also increases the risks as it can make a school over-reliant on certain markets.”
This is generally true of international student recruitment across the education sector. Whether due to targeted marketing efforts, relationships with agents, or established reputations, many schools attract most of their international applicants from one or two specific regions.
The pandemic exposed some of the problems that this lack of diversity can bring. Schools that relied on large numbers of enrollments from China, for instance, immediately felt the hit after the initial outbreak there are the start of the year.
As the situation evolves, with some countries recovering faster than others, schools which have targeted markets that have been slower to control the virus will also be slower to recover their international student base. A more diversified strategy, which lessens risk by ensuring international applicants come from all over the globe, is likely to be a high priority goal for institutions in the future.
5. Programs and Courses Need to Adapt for the Post-pandemic World
In addition to diversifying your targeting of students, the pandemic also demonstrated the importance of offering a diverse mix of programs and courses, both in terms of their content and in how they are formatted.
As mentioned previously, online learning is likely to maintain some of its improved popularity after the pandemic, and ensuring that your school is set up to deliver quality remote instruction will also help to mitigate risk if a similar situation arises in the future.
Example: Automotive Training Centres introduced a host of new online courses during the pandemic. These courses will help the school mitigate against any drops in physical enrollments or further campus closures in the future.
It may also be wise to look at your program mix and try to ensure that you are offering a diverse range of different courses to serve different interests. The economic impact of the crisis is likely to be felt for some time, and certain industries which were hit hard – such as tourism and entertainment – may take some time to recover.
A less healthy job market in certain sectors will mean less demand for education in those areas, and schools need to ensure that they are attracting enrollment in courses related to other fields in order to compensate.
Where possible, cultivating a diverse program mix which offers a wide variety of education for different tastes will likely be the best strategy going forward.
6. Student Recruitment During COVID Taught Schools the Value of Flexibility
When the pandemic hit, the plans of many current and future students across different education institutions were thrown into disarray. Some had to delay or cancel their study plans altogether as they were unable to travel. Others took a financial hit as a result of the pandemic, making it more difficult for them or their families to fund their studies.
The schools that fared best in these situations were those that displayed understanding and flexibility when dealing with specific cases. Some allowed prospects to delay their start dates until they could travel freely, or took the time to rearrange payment plans with those that were in financial difficulty.
Example: Centennial College in Toronto is offering flexible payment plans for students during COVID-19.
Displaying this kind of empathy and support for individual students whose circumstances change due to external factors can build a lot of goodwill, and can also help to retain prospects who would otherwise choose to abandon their education altogether. Schools should strive to allow this kind of flexibility not just to student recruitment during COVID, but wherever possible in the future.
7. There Are More Important Things Than Student Recruitment
Perhaps even moreso than other businesses, schools are expected to have a sense of social responsibility towards their community. While they need to remain profitable, they must balance this with their larger goal of delivering quality education for the betterment of their students, and of keeping students, staff, and others safe, healthy, and happy.
The pandemic highlighted this in a number of ways. Most obviously, it has shone a spotlight on the duty of care schools have to those on campus when it comes to health and safety. Shutting down physical classes served not just to comply with government regulations, but to prevent potentially catastrophic outbreaks of COVID-19. As schools prepare to reopen, they will no doubt be taking new precautions to ensure social distancing and prevent potential spread of the virus.
Example: St Joseph’s University created this video guide to returning to campus safely.
However, this should extend beyond simply managing COVID-19 to a more mindful approach that places health and safety at the top of school’s priorities in the years to come.
In addition, schools have a wider role to play in the recovery of the post-pandemic world by doing what they do best: education. As people face up to an uncertain future and an economic climate that is likely to be turbulent for a while, education can provide a bridge to help them find new careers, adjust to societal changes, and find renewed purpose.
As those in the sector prepare to navigate the next few years, keeping this larger purpose in mind will help them keep a sense of perspective and remain motivated to overcome the challenges they will face along the way.