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Colleges want to open their campuses for in-person instruction this fall. That’s because the alternatives, whatever they might be — everything from fully online to some sort of hybrid solution — look painful when it comes to enrollment, finances, and planning for a dual modality of instruction.

Students (and their parents) also want to be back on campus.

But how both sides navigate the next four months is like everything with this virus: totally unclear and seemingly changing by the day.

On LinkedIn Live next week:

On Monday at 1 p.m. ET, I’ll be joining Bridget Burns from the University Innovation Alliance in our fourth episode of a show we’re calling Start the Week With Wisdom — where we talk with college and university presidents during this crisis.

  • Our guest: Michael Drake from The Ohio State University.

On Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET, I’ll be partnering with my friends at Grown & Flown to help college students (and their parents) navigate the changing job and internship market.

  • I’ll talk with Andy Chan, vice president of innovation & career development at Wake Forest University, and Christine Cruzvergara from Handshake, a company that works with students at hundreds of colleges to help in the job search.

For both, no need to sign up. Just join live on my LinkedIn page (or if you follow me, you’ll get a notifiction when we’re on).

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

Starting College, Online

Today is May 1. Traditionally, this day marked the end of the admissions cycle for students and colleges — the date when deposits were due to secure a spot in the fall class.

  • Even before the coronavirus pandemic, May 1 was likely to lose some of its significance. Last fall, the National Association for College Admission Counseling voted to allow colleges to continue to recruit students after the May deadline rather than fight a Justice Department anti-trust probe of the association’s ethics code.
  • The admissions calendar was further upended over the past two months by Covid-19. First, hundreds of colleges moved their deposit deadline to June 1. Then this week, the University of Oregon shifted it’s deadline to September 1.

Bottom line: The loss of a common calendar is causing panic among students and colleges alike.

Why it matters: Students who haven’t made a decision about where to go have been trying to get colleges with a May 1 deadline to budge (especially if they are weighing offers from June 1st colleges). Meanwhile, colleges that depend on historical data to inform their enrollment trends are flying blind when it comes to tracking their deposit numbers because there is no history for the new jumble of deadlines.

Announcements, Announcements, Announcements:

  • It all started in early March with the spate of colleges announcing they were closing campuses and moving to remote learning.
  • Later in March, it was the flood of announcements about admissions (deadlines, test-optional) and commencements being canceled.
  • Now, if you’re into tracking what colleges are announcing, the last week or so has been all about plans for the fall.

The big picture: With every survey of would-be students and current students (or parents) showing the potential of big enrollment shifts (staying closer to home, for instance) or big declines (taking a year off), institutions are getting nervous about the fall. That’s why we’re seeing so many announcements now about what the fall will look like — with most institutions saying they intend to be back on campus.

  • Giving students some assurance in April/May helps deliver enrollment in August/September, although most college leaders will admit privately they have no idea what the next several months hold for their institutions, their states, or the country.

But, but….students and their parents are just as unsure. Surveys of accepted students taken in May about September shouldn’t be treated as gospel by college leaders.

  • College-bound students also want to be on a campus this fall and along with their parents are worried about what it means for the start of the critical first year of college if they can’t be.

That was the biggest takeaway from a virtual focus group that a private college convened on Wednesday of accepted students, parents, and advisers from community-based organizations who work primarily with first-generation and low-income students. (I was invited to sit in on the session as long as I didn’t name the institution. What I can tell you is that it’s a moderately selective private college with a wide reach of applicants from around the country.)

  • A focus group isn’t a significant sample like a survey, but these participants illustrated to me how some students, parents, and counselors are talking about the fall right now.
  • Most parents said they wanted their children enrolled at some college or university in September, even if that was online.
  • A few parents said they considered asking for a deferral a few weeks ago, but that plan has all but disappeared recently. They’re starting to think that alternatives for their kids to work or “do something productive,” as one parent put it, are limited this fall because of the virus.
  • The high-school seniors in the group were most worriedabout starting college online. Yes, some of the discussion was about the trappings of being on campus — dorm living, parties, and football games. But many were concerned about missing out on the start of their academic journey as well.

What wasn’t said: We know from research that getting to know a faculty member in your first year of college is critical to staying in school and graduating. The question remains whether colleges’ efforts in recent years on first-year success can easily translate online?

The economic divide, widened by the virus: The concerns raised by the advisers from community-based organizations once again illustrated whether you go to college (and later graduate) depends largely on how much money your parents make.

  • One big issue: Deposit fees that take a big bite out of family budgets, when parents suddenly find themselves unemployed.
  • Second big issue: Financial-aid verification, which requires some students to submit additional information to colleges — an onerous task when students aren’t in school and college officials are working remotely.

What’s next: Even for a newsletter named Next, it’s anyone’s guess.

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

Nudging Students

Not only is the traditional admissions calendar been torn apart by Covid-19, so too has the traditional recruitment funnel for colleges that turns prospective students into enrolled ones.

  • “Microscholarships” have become a strategy for many institutions in recent years to nudge students along the pathway to college. Get $150 for being on student government, $400 for taking the PSAT, or $900 for having a job.
  • The leading service in facilitating these small awards is RaiseMe. It partners with than 300 colleges and universities, including Florida International, Syracuse, Penn State, Mount Holyoke, among others, to provide these scholarships to students — both those in high school and those intending to transfer from community colleges.
  • The money is often repackaged dollars the college would be awarding in big chunks as merit aid. By splitting up the money, colleges incentivize behavior, said Preston Silverman, the company’s CEO and co-founder.

The model has become a critical lever for enrollment executives this spring, Boyd Bradshaw told me. He’s the chief enrollment officer at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

  • As IUPUI has moved to virtual admissions events, like most other colleges this spring, the school is offering microscholarships to students who take virtual tours or follow the school on social media.
  • “Basically anything that prior they would have done in a traditional school setting that we can get them to do in a virtual environment,” Bradshaw said.
  • The university is also using the platform to communicate with prospective students at a time when teenagers are ignoring the traditional marketing channels that colleges have long controlled.
  • More than half of the potential students who are earning microscholarships with IUPUI, are prospects the school never had contact with before Many are first-generation and low-income students, he said.

The big picture: Colleges were already trying to figure out new ways to reach potential students before the coronavirus hit. The loss of the SAT and ACT this spring means colleges won’t be able to buy those student names for mailings this summer. The pandemic likely will have long-term consequences on marketing and the college search for both students and schools alike.


Advice for High School Seniors

As high-school seniors and their families sort through the decisions about college this fall, this short blog post by fellow author and former Stanford University dean Julie Lythcott-Haims is a must read.

The Enrollment Crunch

What happens to enrollment and revenue for colleges and universities in the next few months amid a recession and COVID-19 shuttering physical campuses remains uncertain.

Deloitte’s Pete Fritz joined Michael Horn and me to talk through how universities should plan and what’s likely to happen on the latest episode of FutureU.

How the NCAA Blew the Money It Saved Up for Crisis

My favorite read of the week: The NCAA built up savings of nearly $500 million to help mitigate the financial impact of a lost men’s basketball tournament. Then, in 2015, it decided to spend more than $400 million of those savings by following a questionable theory about the risk of saving that much money.

As they say: Follow the money.

Stay safe and stay strong — Jeff

To get in touch, find me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Jeff has written about higher education for more than two decades and is a New York Times bestselling author of three books. His latest, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions, was published in September...