The impact of the pandemic on higher education has been significant and far-reaching. Christian colleges, universities and schools have been hit particularly hard as many lack robust endowments and the large enrollments necessary to weather the COVID-19 storm. New student recruitment, financial aid expenditures, retention and fundraising have all been adversely influenced. There are some things, however, that leaders at Christian institutions can do now to prepare for enrollment recovery and success for Fall 2022.
Many institutions are still reeling from poor outcomes last year. Enrollments at colleges and universities declined significantly in Fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its corresponding impact on the economy.
- Overall enrollments decreased by approximately 4%.
- Community College enrollments plummeted by 13.1%.
- Likely contributing to enrollment decline has been the fact that FAFSA completions dropped by 16%.
These enrollment challenges occurred at a time when many Christian colleges and universities were already struggling with declining demographics and increased competition. Early indicators are that enrollment numbers will be as bad, if not worse, for Fall 2021. Some institutions are reporting declines in admission applications and acceptances; early deposit trends are alarming.
If your institution has been negatively impacted by the pandemic, now is the time to prepare for enrollment recovery for Fall 2022:
- Finalize your discussions regarding standardized test requirements for Fall 2022. I believe that “test-optional” is the best choice for the majority of colleges and universities. Colleges and universities are learning that the standardized tests may not be as important as once assumed. Eliminating barriers to simplify the admission process makes sense for most schools.
- Enrollment recovery will require that leaders be more aggressive than ever, encouraging both new and currently enrolled students to apply for financial aid. Plan now to increase financial aid application rates utilizing reminder postcards, text messages, and emails. A systematic reminder campaign over the period between October and August is essential. Addressing cost concerns has never been more important and higher financial aid application rates will support both recruitment and retention objectives.
- Consider adjustments to your financial aid award policy and funding levels for need-based institutional aid, as the economy is unlikely to recover fully this year. Many students will be faced with greater financial need and higher federal and state grant amounts are unlikely to be approved in the short term. Increased need must be addressed with scarce institutional resources in the post-pandemic market. Pay particular attention to the financial aid struggles of your currently enrolled students. Increased expenditures now may mitigate financially devastating attrition over the coming months.
- Implement initiatives to generate more inquiries. You may need to consider greater use of electronic/internet sources, more travel and additional direct mail communication to support post-pandemic enrollment recovery. Double your efforts in the local market as many students and families will elect to stay closer to home.
- Start your admission funnel analysis now to identify which stages of your funnel (inquiries, applicants, acceptances, deposits) have dropped in the last eighteen months. Ensure you have a detailed plan to increase outcomes for each affected stage.
- Prepare now to increase communication with your currently enrolled students over the end of the Spring term and throughout the summer to keep them engaged. Begin the pre-registration process now. Pay particular attention to financial aid appeals and requests for academic transcripts and act immediately. Actively educate your current students on those attributes that initially attracted them to you school.
- Consider creating an enrollment recovery team to develop a comprehensive plan of action for Fall 2022. Include professionals from your retention team, faculty, financial aid, and admission offices.
- Most importantly, demonstrate value and mission in everything you do. While an emphasis on future employment and spiritual outcomes is always powerful, every conversation, email, text, and visit with prospective students and families should separate your institution from competitors in terms of Christian experience, service, values, shared vision, and real community.
It is going to be another challenging year and your best opportunity for post-pandemic enrollment recovery and success must include new, targeted initiatives. Traditional approaches, as many have witnessed over the last cycle and a half, will not be sufficient.