It’s been well over a year since the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 crash landed in our lives. Now, with vaccine dissemination on the rise, enrollment marketers are beginning to consider the post-pandemic future.

One way to look at things is that we’re heading into a fascinating new chapter in higher ed. 

But in many ways, we just have a new perspective now on changes in higher ed that were already in motion.

This conversation is about that new perspective.

The Pandemic Perspective

Early on, I wrote about what to expect in light of the coronavirus in the coming months with some tips on how to cope. Many of these strategies are still relevant now.

About a year in, I shared some tips for messaging about your school’s response to COVID-19 (part 1 and part 2). This remains a key part of your overall messaging strategy.

I’d now like us to consider the subtleties of post-pandemic messaging.

This is about the broad themes that arise whenever something so historic and traumatizing affects all of us, speaking to the collective psyche. 

Specifically, it’s about connecting with prospects whose thinking about higher education has been forever altered. This is the challenge of post-pandemic enrollment marketing.

Pre-Pandemic Trend, Post-Pandemic Reality

Our concept of the “typical” student was already evolving before COVID-19 showed up. The average college student had been getting less “traditional” (young, living on campus, financially dependent on the parents) for at least two decades.

Instead, students were getting older, more often financially independent, parents themselves, and employed full time as they pursued higher ed part time. 

Severy-four percent – the majority of students – were now, in fact, “nontraditional.”

What was accelerating this trend over the previous 10 years was the last global, historical, traumatic event: the Great Recession. Job losses fell the heaviest on people without a college degree, which drove a rush of nontraditional student enrollment

This dynamic presented enrollment marketers with two problems.

The first problem was that colleges were set up to primarily serve the needs of traditional students. 

Many colleges weren’t geared toward serving working adults with online and adult-oriented programs.

Of course, there was, and still is, a market for the 18-year-old recent high school graduate. It’s just that the pool of these students was getting smaller.

To find these “traditional” students, enrollment marketers were doing more outreach to parts of the country with a growing population, or to low-income students, or stepping up efforts to attract international students

Bringing those students in was becoming a race against time.

The second problem was that overall enrollment was trending down again by the late 2010s. 

Efforts to catch up with demand and meet the needs of the 74 percent with online education and programs geared toward working adults seemed to be missing the window of opportunity.

Some forecasts were showing a downward trend in attendance, an overall reduction as high as 10 percent by 2029. Some were expected to do better, others worse.

Then, COVID-19 came, and the bottom dropped out. 

A system set up to serve the needs of traditional students, and struggling to adapt to the needs of nontraditional ones, was suddenly struggling to serve anyone.

But the crisis did have a silver lining. Necessity became the mother of invention.

The New Post-Pandemic Normal

Suddenly, there was no longer any denying that the majority of students needed more flexibility. Anything less was not only unreasonable, it was dangerous in the midst of a public health crisis.

It also made all students, traditional and nontraditional alike, pause to consider some fundamental questions:

  • Is this the time to enroll full-time, or should I focus on finding work right now instead?
  • Is going to college this year more valuable than taking care of my family?
  • What is the value of higher education? What will I really gain from this?

These are, traditionally, nontraditional questions.

No longer. The post-pandemic world is one in which all students have had a chance to re-examine their expectations of college, and whether those expectations can be met online.

“Covid-19 has changed the trajectory of higher education advancement overnight, pulling forward years of online adoption … After Covid hit, students began flocking to online, particularly younger students. Younger students flocking to online degree programs is likely a new normal for our universities.” – John Farrar, Director of Education at Google

Some may decide the in-person, on-campus, residential experience is still what they want. Others may decide they’d prefer to do higher ed differently, non-traditionally, given the option.

The seed has been planted. Value is now an open question.

As enrollment marketers, it’s our job to answer that question.

A Primer for Post-Pandemic Messaging

Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing the post-pandemic student psyche. You have to work with what you have; you can’t promise what you can’t deliver.

But there are some broad approaches to messaging you might consider in the wake of a pandemic that caused virtually all students to ask similar, fundamental questions.

Themes: Resilience and Leadership

Lean heavily into themes around resilience in the face of adversity and confident leadership in an uncertain world.

These are timeless themes that have added relevance now. Students (and their parents) will want to know whether your school focuses on teaching these critical life skills.

Students want to develop their ability to be the calm in the storm, to apply rational thought and exude confidence when it appears to others that the world is falling apart.

Show them how your school can help them become this person. 

That is what a course called “Leadership Lessons, Leading in a Crisis,” developed by Wendy York, the dean of Clemson University’s College of Business, was designed to do.  

“[I]t has to do with honoring students as individuals and also demanding that they be the best people they can be … And the way we do that is not only preparing them to be able to support themselves, but challenging them to have a sense of who they are as people who will go out into that world.” – Wendy York, Dean of Clemson University’s College of Business

Student Stories: A Lifetime of Learning

There is still a place to tell stories about campus life in enrollment marketing, but it will be increasingly important in the post-pandemic world to tell broader stories as well.

Whether you are telling real stories or painting a picture for students to imagine themselves in, try to capture the idea that college will have relevance beyond four years of life.

  • The traditional approach to this would be telling alumni stories. Pull the thread through the learning experience to being a part of the alumni community, advancing their career, etc.
  • You may also want to consider telling more nontraditional stories that give a nod to the reality that people are starting later, working and caring for family as they attend school.
  • Also think about presenting college as a place to which it’s increasingly normal to return. Tell stories about students who get a degree, work for a time and come back to earn a higher degree. 

Cycles of learning throughout a lifetime is the norm for many students. It may be time for more of the stories we tell to embrace that truth.

Features & Benefits: Value Proposition

In a post-pandemic world, we can no longer assume that prospects believe college offers them sufficient value to be worthwhile.

Students were already questioning whether the time and expense of attending college for four years would lead to a more fulfilling life. COVID-19 added yet another barrier that made the return on investment seem even more remote for many.

Keep in mind that the pandemic was an economic crisis (an ongoing one for many) that likely caused your prospective students and their families to make tough financial decisions.

Your prospects may have seen their parents take on odd jobs to make ends meet, or may have worked harder to support their own families. 

They have seen that the bottom can drop out of the economy, and that when it does, you have to be prepared to reorder your priorities.

That lesson won’t be quickly forgotten. So, as you present the features and benefits of your school, be sure to draw a straight line from what they want to the value you can provide.

  • Consider presenting outcomes for graduates of your programs in stark ROI terms, e.g. average salary they can earn with this degree compared with tuition.
  • If you offer online learning, show students how this translates into helping them balance school and life to achieve their goals.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak to low-income and first-generation prospects directly about the connection between higher education and gainful employment.

You can still present the intrinsic value of the college experience, of course. Just be wary of coming across like you have rose-colored glasses on. 

They can read between the lines. You need to communicate the kind of value that matters when businesses are shutting down, people are losing their jobs and hospital beds are filling up.

Your Story: How You’ve Evolved

In the years to come, schools will increasingly be divided between those who snapped back to business as usual as quickly as they could post-pandemic, and those that evolved.

What you did to innovate in the midst of the pandemic to adapt, and how you are continuing to innovate in its wake for the ongoing benefit of your students, will be powerful differentiators.

That is especially true among the pool of low-income and first-gen college students who need innovative solutions to help them access higher ed.

“When we look back on the pandemic, we will see that it produced a raft of innovations that should inform future practice – and that will help make higher education what it aspires to: A catalyst for equality and social mobility.” – Steven Mintz, Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin

It can be difficult sometimes to tell your institution’s story in a way that is exciting, relevant today and not just a history lesson. But this is an opportunity to tell a new story.

Elements of that new story may include:

  • What you did to make programs more flexible, such as converting them into online modules that students can complete at their own pace.
  • How you connected learning with reality, bringing different disciplines together to tackle real-world problems, e.g. public health education and mitigating social unrest.
  • Ways you offered additional student support, such as bringing teams of counselors together around new initiatives and offered more support services online.
  • How you connected students with career opportunities, forging new partnerships with local employers to create new internships in the midst of economic turmoil.

Students and parents will be interested in a story like this, one that tells them yours is an institution that evolves with the times we’re in and can help students do the same.

It’s time to start crafting your post-pandemic story around the realities of post-pandemic students.

Need help?

Let’s talk about what that looks like for your school. 

I’d love to help you put a plan together to tell that new story and move forward confidently into this new post-pandemic world.


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