As the coronavirus continues to cloud the horizon for colleges and universities across the country, higher education leaders find themselves needing to plan for new uncertainties. While the unknowns of the fall semester loom large, the upcoming summer term offers an interim period for institutions to take two critical steps to help steady their shifting foundations:

  • Bolster student relations to drive engagement and build enrollment

  • Establish continuous improvement processes to assess and enhance recent, rapid changes made in response to the pandemic

COVID-19 has hit higher education hard, and the impacts continue to grow as administrators make challenging decisions about the remainder of the spring semester, commencement programs, and fall semester deposit deadlines. Looking ahead, institutions will be challenged to accurately project fall enrollments due to numerous factors, including the potential need for continued remote delivery, the economic impacts of COVID-19, and uncertainties surrounding travel restrictions relative to international programs.

For the summer term, many institutions already have moved classes online and cancelled special on-campus programs due to the crisis. Such changes will have significant financial implications. Some colleges and universities rely on summer programs to generate as much as 10% of their annual revenues. Higher education leaders should act swiftly to mitigate these losses, both for the summer session and looking ahead to the 2020-2021 academic year.

Bolster Student Relations

The transition to year-round Pell grants starting in 2017-2018 has helped boost summer enrollments the past two years, and many have come to rely on this revenue source. Yet colleges and universities face potential enrollment declines this summer, even with enhanced online offerings.

The economic and emotional turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is far-reaching, affecting businesses, industries, and families nationwide. Many students face uncertainties about their personal finances, and potential disruption to their academic plans. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to reach out to students at a time when they likely need it most.

Students typically have a number of summer options to consider—they might choose to enroll in classes, pursue an internship, work, or travel. Yet, with a majority of U.S. states on some form of shelter-in-place order through the end of April due to the pandemic, and potential for an extended period of social distancing beyond that, many traditional summer options may be unavailable. Institutions have an immediate opportunity to increase guidance and support for students as they evaluate their choices.

Academic advisors, registrar offices, and individual schools or colleges should analyze students’ key opportunities, and drive integrated—and as appropriate, personalized—communications. Such initiatives can build awareness and help keep students on track and engaged with the institution. Some advantages to taking summer term classes that advisors might highlight for students include:

  • Optimizing time to degree. Especially with many colleges and universities expanding online offerings for the summer, students can use the time to complete extra courses toward their degree to graduate earlier.

  • Completing general education and prerequisites. Students who are in the early stages of their degrees can use the term to complete core credits, so they can move forward with electives in the fall and spring.

  • Increasing credentials or skills. The summer term offers an opportunity for students to build out their resumes to make them more competitive in a job market that is likely to grow increasingly tight as the nation heads into recession.

In addition to highlighting the advantages, schools or colleges should coordinate with financial aid advisors to provide information about potential grants or loan opportunities. Financial aid appeals due to “change of family circumstances” are likely to increase as students and their families face unexpected financial difficulties due to the poor economy. By anticipating this need and providing proactive support, counseling, and information, institutions can help their constituents better understand their options.

Having integrated communications is essential to provide students as much information as possible in one place, avoid piecemeal or redundant messaging, and increase the chances they will respond. Such efforts can be challenging, however, as academic planning may occur at the program level, and may be handled differently by different departments across an institution. For this reason, enterprise-wide efforts to provide integrated communications for students should be led by the provost’s office, in coordination with student services, department chairs, and other faculty leaders across campus. While many students may already have enrolled in summer courses, issuing targeted communications as soon as possible will enable outreach to draw engagement and additional potential enrollments at a time of limited competing options.

The summer term also offers an opportunity for colleges and universities to pilot new, innovative models, such as text, chat, or social media functions to facilitate communication among students and advisors. Testing such models now can help institutions better prepare for the fall, especially with the possibility that courses may need to continue to be offered fully or partially online.

Establish Continuous Improvement

The pandemic has created a number of challenges this spring as colleges and universities were forced to quickly shift gears, close campuses, and shift courses online within a matter of days or weeks. Most higher education leaders likely have spent the last several weeks in rapid-response mode, triaging critical issues stemming from the COVID-19 crisis. With the potential for continued campus closures in the fall, the summer presents a unique opportunity to analyze and address spring term issues and challenges. 

Summer should be a time of analysis and continuous improvement as institutions work to realize effective transformation in the fall and beyond.

In addition to continued focus on online course design, some high-level areas of analysis may include constituent/student experience, communications strategies, maximized technology usage, performance management, and business and service process reviews. 

Higher education leaders should build on the agility they have shown in recent weeks and find ways to streamline decision-making. This may be challenging for institutions that historically have worked in a consensus-based system that can slow decision-making, but the current environment requires the ability to be nimble and responsive.

To lead continuous improvement efforts, organizations can establish cross-functional teams or working groups spanning key services—such as student financial services, mental health and counseling, academic and career counseling, and online resource centers. These teams can help engage the appropriate stakeholders to drive analysis and effective decision-making and should consist of no more than 8-10 people.

For example, a working group focused on student financial services might include representatives from financial aid, student accounts, and a large, broadly representative college, such as a college of arts and sciences. Having a student representative and an executive level sponsor also are critical. Identifying a chairperson to lead the working group, manage goals and timelines, and serve as the key point of contact for executive leadership helps to ensure accountability.

Colleges and universities will continue to be challenged in the coming weeks and months. Despite the many uncertainties surrounding COVID-19 and its broad ripple effects, leaders have an opportunity to use the summer term to course correct and prepare for the fall. They should act quickly to engage students in a meaningful and personalized way. This will help to effectively manage enrollment as leaders continue to broadly evaluate their operations and services, and make improvements needed to enable positive and impactful transformation.

If you have any questions, or want to share ways in which your institution is approaching the summer term in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, please reach out to Julia Wysocki by email or at (224) 500-7030.

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