In any other year, this would be a time when students and universities would be obsessing with admissions procedures for the next fall term: admission forms, essays, rankings, and prospects. But the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed this landscape. The world is still grappling with what appears to be a new way of life, and university admissions are going to be disrupted quite drastically. Those students who received admit letters in January may just not join in the fall semester. In fact, according to a recent survey, 1 in 4 students who had decided on a school are in two minds on whether to enrol and 1 in 5 may just not attend a higher education institution in the fall.1 With projected enrolments down, universities are staring at lower tuition revenues, and this is just the start of a litany of woes that the education industry will be grappling with.
This change is going to be tough for universities who have traditionally found it difficult to change – they will need to completely rethink the student experience in a time where the most basic assumptions on how to deliver education are being revisited. Irrespective of how the coronavirus story unfolds, the higher education sector needs a new thinking hat, and the way to do that is to start with the student experience.
Thinking like a business focused on customer experience
Tuition has typically been the biggest source of revenues at US universities; in fact successful enrolment sets the tone for the campus for the academic year. When both the financial and social resilience of the nation and its institutions are being tested, enrolment becomes even more critical now. Thinking from the point of view of the students and their experience, there are some measures that smart universities are taking to increase their chances of success.
Recalibrating the admissions engine
The admissions season this year has thrown up unique and never-seen-before challenges. Adapting to these has called for scenario planning. While some universities are pushing back deposit payment deadlines, others are offering alternate plans for families whose ability to pay tuition has been hit by COVID-19. The flexibility on SAT scores and increased offers to waitlisted candidates are other options that universities are deploying, even as they make adjustments to the requirements of enrolment documents.
Shrinking the admissions funnel
The idea of a student leaving home and traveling to a university campus and staying in a dorm is likely to be a thing of the past. The international student enrolment is also looking bleak as travel bans across the world prevent such actions among even the brightest of students. Universities need to go local when it comes to identifying students who can be a part of their community. This includes incentivizing local candidates to apply and tweaking admissions criteria to attract students who wouldn’t mind going to college as long as they can go back to the safety of their home at the end of the day.
Student finances: Investing in futures
Even in the best of times, a student loan statement isn’t the easiest document to read – all you know is that you’ve borrowed a lot of money - but there is no one place to get a complete financial picture. A university that is really serious about helping a student manage their finances in this time of uncertainty could provide a service or solution through which students can track their loan, manage payment and obtain further loans (federal or private loan, micro lending, peer-to-peer loan). These solutions that exist in the banking industry are not explored by universities; and offer a real enhancement in the students’ experiencing of managing and keeping track of debt.
Meanwhile, with income sharing agreements, colleges seem attractive to schools who are piloting such agreements. Here, a student is offered a 100% fee waiver for a course. Once the student gets a job, the university takes a share of the salary every month that pays back the cost of tuition, at a nominal rate of interest. Universities need systems to manage this: estimate the student’s financial capability and track loans and repayments. In fact, this department of the university needs to look like a loan department of a bank – with the people, process and technology that make it run. This is where a university needs to think like a bank.
Short term courses for future credit
Many students are not sure about whether they need to sign up for a full time course at a university, given the uncertainty in their lives today. In this scenario, a short-term course could make excellent sense to both the university and the student. Credits earned on such a course could be used for a full time diploma that the student may sign up for in the future. The nature of the course also opens it up for online learning capabilities. The lower time commitment that short term courses entail make them an attractive offering to students who are looking to augment their skills but are not looking for the whole nine yards when it comes to their student experience.
Re-forging links with the alumni
Now, more than ever, it is critical for universities to reach out and activate the community of alumni to help their alma mater tide over a time of distress. The need for executive education continues through the career of the executive, with needs varying with the life-stage. It is time for universities to step up their game in this area to offer continuous learning programs remotely for those who are seeking to upgrade skills to prepare for an uncertain future.
Skin in the game: Helping universities invest more in the student experience
The successful universities of the future will be set apart from the rest by how invested they are in the student experience in a time of crisis. How well a university embraces digital technologies is a key enabler of this. New age digital technology will redefine the student experience by helping universities be more invested in the student. Every time there is an income sharing agreement, a university is investing in a student, putting its belief in the student and throwing its weight behind their future prospects. This shift in attitude will help students gain a better experience while at university. To make this happen, universities need to think like the industries that they will borrow from, with technology and solutions in lockstep with this change in approach.
Fearlessly forward-looking in an age of uncertainty
The university needs a CFO mind-set, where cost areas and revenue opportunities are seen through the lens of what appears to be the new normal. Universities need to look at diversification of revenues from new learning opportunities even as they bring down costs with a shared services approach. There could be significant savings unlocked from the online learning methodology, though setting yourself up for online success requires time, investment and the right attitude. Those universities that continuously track and adapt as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds but are clear of how they wish to tailor their student experience are most likely to be successful in this year’s admissions cycle.
- Higher ed and COVID-19: National student survey, SimpsonScarborough, April 2020, info.simpsonscarborough.com