When the final 2020 enrollment numbers were tallied, how well did your institution weather the coronavirus storm?

Nationwide college enrollment declined by 2.5%. That’s twice the rate of decline reported for fall 2019 and accounts for a loss of about 400,000 students.

Community colleges took the biggest hit with an average decline of about 10%. Most students who were already in college stayed in college, but the number of high school students who went straight into college dropped by about 22%.

Learn from a panel of higher ed leaders at three very different institutions who bucked these trends. Wise up with three key tips and takeaways from our roundtable webinar.

Watch our webinar.

#1

Bank on your best programs

Who would imagine a global pandemic hitting just months into your new leadership role?

When Dr. Stanton McNeely started his presidency at the University of Holy Cross in July 2019, enrollment had dropped 200 students in two years.

By the time March 2020 rolled around, he and his team had already set in motion some ways to strengthen fall enrollment.

Instead of focusing on traditional first-year freshmen, UHC looked at the whole student mix. They accelerated getting new online graduate counseling programs up and running, and partnered with high schools on more dual enrollment courses, resulting in a 3.4% enrollment increase.

“One of the things that I’m a big believer in is to realize that we have to be highly nimble and highly innovative to be relevant,” Dr. McNeely said. “It’s important that we look beyond the pandemic. I’m not going to rest on my laurels and the success we saw with graduate counseling in fall 2020 and spring 2021. Because I know that the competition is going to be fierce. It’s going to be very strong moving forward, and it’s not going to abate. So we affirm what we’re doing and continue to build on it.”

#2

Make the news work for you

How do you drive up applications 30%, increase enrollment 6% and convince your audiences of your brand’s value — all during a pandemic?

Dr. Cynthia Peterson, Dean of LSU College of Science, and her team leveraged the pandemic’s global spotlight on science and her college’s “Your Question Next” brand to communicate the vital impacts LSU scientists and mathematicians are making now.

“COVID-19 has really reinforced the world’s need for quality scientists who are well-trained, ready to answer questions,” Dr. Peterson said.

Using intriguing questions as an entry into storytelling, the college’s communications cut straight to the questions LSU scientists and its audiences are asking — and answering — highlighting for prospects and families ways the college is entrenched in the scientific pandemic response:

  • Faculty and students rallied together and transformed LSU’s sports arena to create more than 20,000 protective gowns and face shields for people on the frontlines of the pandemic.
  • Other teams assessed their laboratories for equipment and supplies that could be donated to healthcare facilities around the community.
  • When testing was at an all-time low, LSU researchers partnered with area hospitals and set up the River Road Laboratory to do COVID-19 testing, helping physicians triage patients quicker and advance Louisiana’s testing capabilities.
  • LSU ecologists received a grant to do mathematical modeling, looking at the intensity of epidemics and pandemics like COVID-19.
  • LSU chemists created large batches of hand sanitizer and distributed it to the community.

“It’s allowing people to engage with scientists and think about how science leads to solutions for society in a very real way,” Dr. Peterson said.

#3

Build in two-way communication with your audiences

At St. Edward’s University in Austin, where two-thirds of alumni had graduated within the past 20 years, many students had only experienced St. Edward’s in a time of growth.

But when the pandemic broke out, operations at all universities were impacted including at St. Edward’s. Some alums couldn’t fathom remote learning, let alone other changes coming fast and furious.

“They were watching all of these things happen around them — having remote classes, telling students we can’t house everyone that initially wanted to live on campus,” said Christie Campbell, vice president of marketing and communications. “They didn’t know that version of St. Edward’s. They only knew bigger and better each year.”

Instead of just blasting out email updates, St. Edward’s chose a savvier communication strategy: two-way dialogue with all campus audiences including alumni.

A series of alumni listening sessions delivered a forum for whatever was on their mind: the future of St. Edward’s, social unrest in the nation, belt-tightening on campus, how the alumni association could serve them better, and more.

“It helped us have the insight, but also helped them adjust to who St. Edward’s will always continue to be, including who we have to be in these unique circumstances,” Christie said.

LEARN MORE

Get more great tips from our panel of higher ed leaders. Watch our roundtable webinar.