COVID-19 continues to impact summer melt—maybe this year more than ever. While there is much hopeful news about the state of the pandemic, the impact of COVID-19 on fall classes is significant. With a variety of factors at play, summer melt may be more challenging than ever this year, and therefore good communication strategies are more important than ever for navigating this unusual time.
While the summer melt season has always been somewhat unpredictable, historically schools have been able to model their yield based on common indicators. However, this year several dynamics have taken traditional indicators off the table, such as deadlines, test scores, and campus visits. As a result, schools find themselves in uncharted territory as they plan for their fall classes.
First, with no-test policies instituted by many schools due to COVID-19, there has been a surge in applications. Students, who may not have applied to particular schools previously because of test score requirements, have applied. Students have sent out many applications when they may otherwise have sent out only a handful.
But, while more elite schools have seen an abundance of applicants, less competitive schools are seeing a reduction in applicants. And the applicants they do have may be sitting on wait lists elsewhere hoping for a spot. Therefore, students are waiting longer to commit as they pause for waitlist decisions. As students wait out their options, deadlines for commitment come and go.
Having no test scores also impacts a schools’ estimation of how serious a student is. Typically, when a student has scores sent to a school, that serves as an indicator of interest. But with a lack of test scores, that gauge is missing.
Finally, campus visits have traditionally been the “holy grail” indicator for student interest and are also missing this year. That impacts the school’s ability to gauge as well as a student’s ability to decide. Both leave schools in limbo.
Stay the Course
The best thing schools can do in this uncertainty is double down on their communications. Best-practice strategies are more critical than ever. Our survey of parents in 2020 provided clear guidance: parents are looking for a balanced combination of reassurance that their student will be safe, transactional “next steps” to enrollment, and answers as to what fall will hold.
This still holds true for 2021. Schools should consistently communicate with students wherever they are in the process. With the evolving pandemic, there is no doubt much confusion about how school will work in the fall and what the next steps are for enrollment. Parents continue to want clear information about all of it.
Schools can take several proactive steps:
Keep your foot on the gas as far as comms flows and outreach. Families want to hear from you at least weekly, and many may still seek daily communications as they finalize their decisions and look to fall.
Review transactional communications: Ensure that prospective students understand how to become committed students. Clearly communicate next steps and deadlines. Give them everything they need to take immediate action for fall. They want to stay on track, so help them do so.
Continue brand communications: Schools are still selling. Decisions may have not been made, and may not actually be final. Have brand touch points and make the brand engaging—such as communications from faculty or fellow students. This is especially important when campus visits cannot be made.
Communicate COVID-19 plans: Explain what your school already knows about the fall and communicate what your school does not yet know. Provide scenario planning for that which has yet to be determined.
Take control of the narrative about your campus. Integrate local news about the pandemic into your communications to give context to what is happening in your state, region, or city.
Reach out directly to parents: After the application phase, create a parent communication flow to keep them in the loop.
Consider all channels of communication: Print communications can become a billboard in the home as materials sit on a dining room table. Social media is an important way to reach parents who may be on Facebook or Instagram. And email continues to be an easy way to reach out.