University Enrollment in the Face of COVID-19
Ms. Joellen Lindner
Interim Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management
Mansfield University of Pennsylvania (Mansfield, Pennsylvania)
I began my placement as the Interim Vice President of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management at Mansfield University in August, 2019. Within the first several months of my assignment, we succeeded in growing enrollment for the first time in over nine years. Resident numbers were up and all benchmarks looking to fall 2020 showed the trend was continuing in an upward direction. Optimism was high and it felt good. And then, it happened.
COVID-19 overtook the headlines about six weeks away from the traditional May 1 commitment deadline, and from that point, the 2020 recruitment cycle defied all previous, even predictable, benchmarks. We were trying to bring in a class whose world was turned upside down in just a few weeks while at the same time trying to start our planning for Fall 2021. As we transitioned the campus to online learning, moving over 700 students off campus quickly and safely and adjusting operations to a telecommuting environment, we began to assess what we could do to help alleviate an already stressful situation. Our analysis began with reviewing existing admissions criteria and followed with the implementation of several strategic initiatives, a few of which I describe below.
Implement a Test Optional Admissions Process
Mansfield University was one of the first institutions in Pennsylvania to become test optional for Fall 2020. Test optional, meaning students have a choice whether or not to submit standardized test scores, is becoming increasingly popular as testing companies are having to cancel national test dates. Students are looking for options, especially when it comes to scholarships tied to academic achievements. The President, Provost and Enrollment Management personnel were all part of the discussion to review alternatives for assessing student competencies and admission application evaluation. Test optional practices will continue for Fall 2021 applicants.
Create a Virtual Campus Tour Option
Our data showed that we have the highest conversion of those students who visit campus, especially during this critical time frame, March-May. We had planned to use the summer to enhance our virtual tour, update the campus map, update video footage and still photos. Those plans were put on a fast track. Within two weeks, we had completed a major overhaul of not only the virtual campus tour; our individual and group visits were also transitioned to a virtual platform. Working closely with the Marketing Department, the University’s homepage became “all things enrollment.” Faculty were contacted and quickly embraced virtual appointments with prospective students and their influencers. Within the first week of going virtual, 24 appointments were scheduled with prospective students and by mid-May, 119 students visited virtually.
Extend the Student Reply Date
The traditional May 1 decision deadline was extended to June 1, in order to provide flexibility to our deposited and still deciding whether to deposit students. The decision gave us some additional time to reach out to students, schedule virtual visits and alleviate undue pressure on prospective students. In the end, the decision has paid off.
While COVID-19 is still very much part of our world, we have been fortunate to have exceeded our enrollment goals through increased retention, data-driven marketing strategies, on-going communication with first-year students, families, alumni and the region. You can never over communicate! Develop an internal and external communication strategy and share it across campus. Deadlines, visits days (even those that are now virtual), how to schedule virtual appointments, your campus health and safety plan and so much more needs to be communicated. Be ready to admit when something is not working, be flexible and quickly shift direction, if necessary.
More than ever, we are change agents who have to quickly assess the situations into which we have been placed. COVID-19 has brought on new challenges but has at the same time presented me an opportunity to develop new skills. As a fellow member of The Registry, you are well positioned to accept this challenge.