How to ensure broad access to higher education is maintained as COVID-19 causes shifting trends.

If you live somewhere in North America, you’re now approaching your two-month anniversary of being in lockdown.

And depending on where you live, the dominant narrative is likely to be increasingly focused on how and when things might start returning to the way they once were, and/or what the legacies of this moment in history might be.

Colleges and universities are among those institutions most seized with these issues. It was relatively late in the semester when the pandemic hit, and most schools were able to salvage their academic years by pivoting to online and remote learning approaches – in some cases, by implementing the pass/fail grading system.

And while school administrators should be applauded for how quickly and seamlessly they were able to switch gears, these leaders are also aware that the measures enacted in early March 2020 were interim solutions borne out of immediate necessity with virtually no lead time.

5 Emerging Trends in Higher Education

Going forward, strategies will need to be drawn up to lay out how organizations charged with higher education delivery mandates will adapt proactively in the coming weeks and months to what will be continuously evolving circumstances and protocols.

The following five areas of focus are where we expect some post-secondary brand managers will land during this time.

1. Higher ed institutions will have fewer people on campus.

On the surface, this one’s the most obvious.

While moving lectures and seminars online as a semi-permanent strategy should be straightforward in theory (especially following the scramble to do so in Q1 of 2020), the implementation of these efforts across all classes will require significant investments in technology and strong buy-in among faculty.

Further, how to conduct activities that can’t be fulfilled online, such as exams and labs, will require additional thinking.

Of course, there’s much more to school than coursework. Historically, we know school has been where people come together to share ideas, learn from one another, compete, advocate and interact.

So what, for instance, are the implications for athletics if spectators can’t or don’t attend? Similarly, tertiary services and student activities such as campus rallies, performing arts events and even transportation services will all be adversely impacted if attendance is low.

Identifying innovative ways that empower students to share a common experience – ones that enable them to continue to informally interact and engage with one another – is going to be critical for higher ed institutions.

It may not be possible to replicate the traditional experience online, so some real thought will need to be given to how a school can deliver more informal social experiences that promote collegiality and spur personal development and growth.

For marketers, the task will be to build awareness and confidence in any adjusted delivery model. Are you positioning your distance-learning offering as different, or better than other institutions? Are you using conversational marketing to nurture relationships and offer support? Does your institution’s brand and expressed purpose set you apart from all the other colleges and universities? These questions and more must be considered as the entire sector moves towards what could be perceived as a commoditized delivery model.

2. Higher ed students will need more financial assistance.

Despite the fact that some programs have been created to help offset what’s expected to be a historically soft summer for student jobs, there can be little doubt that tuition affordability will be a key pressure on enrolment rates until the worst of this crisis abates.

Demand for financial assistance may reach record levels – and with traditional sources of supplemental student income (AKA: parents) dealing with their own income stresses – the net result could be fewer students capable of enrolling, or at least enrolling full time.

Schools will need to find ways to mitigate some of these challenges, perhaps by offering new and more creative tuition payment terms and arrangements.

As well, donor relation departments may find that the same issue – the generational barrier to student access, when it is framed as such – is what finally compels transformational donors to give.

3. International student enrolment is at risk of declining.

At the time of writing, non-essential travel across most borders is illegal for American and Canadian residents. In other words, in-person student recruitment has been halted. In theory, this may not have a dramatic impact on international student enrolment for the upcoming year as many recruitment activities will have taken place prior to the restrictions.

That said, students who have been admitted to North American schools may be less willing or able to travel abroad. What’s more, this cohort is also likely to be unenthusiastic about having their studies moved online as the experience of physically living in a new country is frequently a major draw.

In addition to losing revenue from international students, many schools are being threatened with other significant cuts to their funding models, which will ramp up pressure on schools to grow revenues from other sources both immediately and over the longer term.

Becoming or staying differentiated as an institution is crucial to retaining the attention of international audiences. Unless you’re at Harvard (Hi, Harvard!) or Oxford, you’re likely a challenger brand in this space; your name by itself may not be enough to attract and recruit learners from abroad – especially while recruitment events, like all large gatherings, remain heavily curtailed.

4. Higher ed enrolment – for this year and next – will be highly unpredictable.

While some schools are currently reporting that they’ve seen only a limited drop in enrolment acceptance in the past number of weeks, others are increasingly anticipating that prospective (and even some current) students will defer their decisions until they have more clarity about when and how the current isolation measures will be resolved.

Many prospective students – including and especially those graduating from high school this year – are musing about taking a gap year to work or travel. By delaying their enrolment to 2021, the expectation is the health crisis will be mostly contained.

However, this strategy has several flaws. First, for many students, finding travel destinations or suitable work during a pandemic gap year may prove difficult, if not impossible.

More significantly, there are implications to deferring applications to next year, when there could be nearly double the number of prospective students seeking entry. That is, the classes of both 2020 and 2021. We can take cues from Ontario (Canada)‘s experience for what challenges might arise from a double-cohort enrolment.

Unless a student is top-tier, they may well find that applying for enrolment this year is truly their best chance for admission, and that delaying may result in disappointment.

How this message gets developed and delivered will require some tact, but schools do have a responsibility to ensure students are aware of this reality so they can make informed decisions. Your social channels, content outreach and conversational marketing tools are your lifelines here as they can provide the immediacy and wide reach that the current ever-changing situation demands.

5. The value and esteem for higher ed could rise.

Recently, the newly appointed University of Winnipeg Chancellor Barb Gamey said, “…there is a direct link between the education level of a society and its economic, health and social success.” (Full disclosure, as president and CEO of Payworks, Barb is also a client of our parent agency, McKim)

Those of us with a passion for the power of education have always known this to be true.

As the world continues to gain a greater appreciation for the roles front-line healthcare workers, economists, researchers, teachers, journalists, and politicians have during this crisis, perhaps it has never been more obvious that higher education shapes and improves our society’s collective quality of life.

Broadly, your marketing should remind audiences of this universal fact. More specifically, it should demonstrate how your particular school stands apart on character, purpose, student experience (including online), academic quality, accolades . . . or any combination of the above.

It’s incumbent upon colleges and universities to continue to be nimble, adaptable and capable of reacting. If done correctly, you will ensure that broad access to higher education is maintained during one of the most volatile periods in our collective history.

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