Getting students back on campus was one thing. Now, colleges and universities need to rethink their communications plans

At this stage in the pandemic, higher education has had to pivot numerous times. First, it was the challenge of creating and delivering learning models to students in a world that had shut down overnight. Then, it was maintaining a high level of instruction and responding to ever-changing rules and regulations without a clear end in sight.

Now, as states and provinces across the continent and world slowly reopen—all on different timelines, with slightly different mandates—higher education has to contend with an even newer new-normal, where courses and degrees may be delivered completely in person, remote, or through a hybrid model.

This phase makes appealing to prospective students a challenge. How can post-secondary institutions communicate the value of these new learning models and still provide students with a robust learning experience? Even more crucially, it forces colleges and universities to answer: what is the value of a higher education experience in today’s job markets, political realities, and climate?

Students are skeptical of sky-high tuition—and want to know what they’re paying for

There was a time when high-school seniors would proudly wear their college or university apparel, boasting the name (and brand) of their soon-to-be-school on Decision Day. These traditions still exist, but they’ve been tempered by a growing trend: students are increasingly questioning whether an elite higher education experience is worth top dollar when so many of the draws (a charming tree-lined campus, stunning oak lecture halls, and the thrills of dorm life) have been drastically undermined by the realities of the pandemic. When an Ivy League education at times means sitting at home, clicking through slides or watching a pre-recorded lecture from the opposite side of the country, how does one justify spending $50,000+ per year?

Of course, by now most colleges and universities have had time to adapt, and many have figured out how to structure courses to keep students engaged regardless of how many touchpoints they include. But that doesn’t mean COVID-19 didn’t do its damage on a perception level. Last year, an education consultancy found that as late as April, 40 percent of students had yet to make a deposit at their top-choice school because they were unsure if they’d still attend if the pandemic kept students off-site.

The crisis here is a communications one. Schools have long depended on and marketed themselves around elements of the higher education experience that no longer exist in their traditional form. It’s clear they need to articulate to students exactly what they are getting out of their degree—no matter how that degree is getting delivered. Otherwise, students are left questioning the fundamental difference between a degree from a college or university over a polytechnic, particularly when theoretical degrees can’t promise an immediate job path or security in an ever-precarious world.

This chapter is rife with opportunity for schools that may have previously been low on students’ radars. While the Ivys boast brand recognition and ivory towers, they’re also encumbered by custom, tradition, and “old-world” teaching models. When it comes to rapidly pivoting both their offerings and campus life, they may be at a disadvantage to younger institutions that have already embraced hybrid structures, innovative tech platforms, and flexible teaching models.

Those that can communicate this value may enjoy a bump in enrollment, as students opt for colleges and universities that can more clearly deliver cohesive experiences both on and off campus (at a small fraction of the price of more “elite” institutions, too).

Not to mention that mature students or young professionals may instead opt for rapidly growing learning marketplaces over going back to an accredited institution. In fact, just this past month Udemy launched Udemy Business Pro, a learning program built to “accelerate skill development for modern technical roles through interactive learning experiences.”

With attendance for these types of courses surging, and students looking to quickly gain the specialized credentials workplaces are after, universities and colleges need to work overtime to market their lasting value in the face of these convenient—and low-cost—alternatives. And with other accredited institutions building entire models around the idea of democratizing elite education (just look at the “radically affordable” Quantic MBA program), traditional colleges and universities may have a bigger communications challenge ahead of them than they think.

Higher education needs communications plans built around experiences, not updates

To meet the times where they’re at, it’s clear colleges and universities need to think about how to create and articulate student experiences that are unique to their brands. There’s some low-hanging fruit—marketing departments would be wise to digitize any hard-copy materials, and ensure that any information typically communicated at fairs or other events can be easily accessed online.

From there, there’s room to get creative. VR and AR experiences, for instance, have proven popular so far with prospects and incoming students. Virtual tours and welcome days, video content, and interactive online events can all go a long way to helping students feel involved and providing the feeling of being “on campus”—even for those who are streaming remotely.

The bigger challenge is how to connect the dots between these various efforts and assets to more radically reconfigure the student experience. Colleges and universities have more to communicate to students than ever—from managing expectations around learning models to ensuring COVID-19 safety protocols are clear and followed—and how they do so is a critical part of the all-round education experience.

Take the University of San Diego (USD). Faced with the dilemma of disjointed student experiences, they partnered with Salesforce to create mobile apps that empower students to manage all aspects of their university life. The apps, which are tailored to different programs and needs, provide students with notifications on class schedules, upcoming deadlines, and even productivity analytics. They include a GPS-enabled map of campus, shortcuts to call or email staff, and connect to other vital information such as the library catalogues and on-campus events. In turn, these apps provide USD with “a 360-degree view of the student, allowing it to advise individuals on opportunities they might be interested in and that could drive their academic success”.

When so much of our lives takes place in hybrid models—sending us ricocheting between apps, platforms, and physical reality—providing succinct omnichannel experiences is more important than ever. Which begs the question: is the communications experience itself the differentiator to superior higher education experiences, not just the parcel for how students learn and consume information? And if so, can colleges and universities rise to the challenge?

Image: Michael Walter/Unsplash

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