At this point, nobody truly knows what the long-term impact that COVID-19 will have on education and how it will change school enrollment.
There is still a lack of clarity of how our traditional recruiting efforts (tours, open houses and shadow days) will look like in a social distancing world and, as I write this in early June, we still waiting to feel the impact of the coming recession due to the shut-down of businesses and rise of unemployment.
Right now, there are more questions than answers, so all one can do is speculate. However, there are a few things that we know are currently happening.
Private Schools that have struggled with enrollment are going to close at a faster rate.
Many of the schools that are closing were in a weak position even before the virus. The economic impact of COVID-19, with the cancellation of fundraisers, the shift to online learning, and the impact of a lower spring recruitment time frame has proven too great for many schools to overcome.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian-oriented think tank out of DC, is tracking school closures as a result of COVID-19. As of May 29, they report that 44 private schools have closed due to COVID-19 related issues. Eighty-six percent (38) of these schools are Catholic schools, which were already in a state a decline as a sector before the effects of the virus.
The future of enrollment marketing will continue to shift towards digital channels
With families locked in their houses, many schools successfully transitioned to communicating with their prospective parents digitally. From virtual open houses to online parent and student ambassadors, many high performing schools were able to quickly pivot to an online recruitment model. For years, schools have increasingly adopted more digital recruiting efforts, but COVID-19 seemed to accelerate the adoption curve for schools in using online advertising techniques to increase their enrollment.
To help schools begin to think more broadly about what school enrollment will look like in a post-COVID-19 world, we asked several experts in student recruitment to give us their predictions for what this new world will look like and what schools should be doing now to change their approach to marketing.
Continue to invest in inbound marketing
I have been talking about the benefits of inbound marketing for schools for a long time, so long that I think people are sick of me saying it. However, I believe that a long-term effect of COVID-19 and schools working remotely is that schools will be forced to adopt an inbound marketing strategy. Ultimately, I think this will be a good thing for school marketers and school marketing.
One negative result of COVID-19 that worries me is that I’m fearful professional development dollars will be reduced for school marketers. If you couple reduced professional development costs because of virtual events and reduced budgets because of reduced enrollment, I, unfortunately, see a trend that will result in reduced professional development dollars for school marketers when I would argue that those dollars should actually be increased during this time. I sincerely hope that I’m wrong!
Widen your market
A school’s brand footprint will be highly measured by the value they bring/brought to families during this crisis. To that end, private schools will see a surge in interest from frustrated non-customers (parents whose students attend non-tuition-based schools), those who live unconventional lives (parents who travel a lot for work, families who want to travel, students who travel for sports (training for the Olympics), and families who prefer to homeschool their kids due to physical or emotional reasons, etc.). This gives those schools an opportunity to recruit families who might not have considered them in the past.
Understand your parents (customer) needs
Traumatic events such as the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to have an immediate, and long-lasting effect on the psyche of parents and students. Schools will still need to market to parents, that hasn’t changed. What has changed, is what those parents are concerned with now.
Whereas a parent’s primary concerns may have been about strong academics and character development, they may now (at least in the short term), be more concerned with the safety and continuity of their child’s education and social experiences.
Now is the time to reevaluate your parents’ concerns by refreshing your “buyer personas”. These are the semi-fictitious representations of your ideal parents based on market research and real data.
By surveying your existing parents to learn what is important to them right now, you can craft your marketing messages to resonate with prospective new parents who share the same values. Keep in mind that opinions are likely to evolve, so consider multiple surveys every few months.
Understand your parents’ (customer) enrollment journey
Schools will need to place more emphasis on the ‘customer journey’. It is not quite the same as saying ‘go digital’ because physical open events and tours are still going to be the most important step for most parents, I think. But schools should be working around them – preparing parents for these events and following up after so that if events are canceled it does not matter as much – and if they happen, they are truly effective.
Understand how parents shop and research schools
Moving forward, schools must not only be able to show their strength of curriculum and teaching methodology but also how they can deliver their education through any crisis without interruption. School research by parents is increasingly being done online and any digital marketing should include information about how the current Covid-19 crisis was handled and/or how prepared schools are to handle virtual learning in the future.
The Covid-19 crisis has had an extreme impact on how parents research and decide where to send their children to school. With the uncertainty of the ability to conduct in-person open houses and tours, schools are forced to turn to alternative digital options. Schools are increasingly diverting advertising dollars from traditional less focused methods to options that can target specific demographics and decision-makers that are in an active search mode. Parents that cannot find a strong online digital presence will have less confidence that a school can deliver their curriculum online during the time of crisis.
Your competitive position matters
Private schools that compete primarily with public and poorly funded parochial schools, will do relatively well because their value was so clear. While public schools struggle without adequate resources and online classes that were way too big, private schools were able to teach meaningfully, for a decent amount of time each week, and with some individual attention. On the other hand, private schools, especially those with declining enrollment and weak market positions before COVID19, who compete primarily with market-leading private schools will struggle to stay afloat.
Re-think International Strategy
Many schools in the UK and US recruit students from overseas markets – most predominantly, China. In 2019, nearly 370,000 Chinese students were studying in the US (Schools and Colleges), making it the leading source of international students and therefore associated revenue (Source: Statista).
The recent crisis of course affected this Chinese pipeline in the first instance but has spread to affect every country around the world. This will no doubt make schools think twice about relying solely on one, historically strong overseas recruitment market for, and even prompt them to move to a more flexible offering mixing in-person and online teaching provision, to avoid their overseas audiences being ‘cut-off’ once again.
Now, more than ever before, it is critical to market to your future families. Your school website must double down on the number one objective – capturing leads. And the number one source is via tours, don’t cancel these! Instead, go with live-hosted virtual tours, which will be the new normal going forward. The landscape has changed, those that choose to embrace technology by using automation and personalized emails to turn your future families to turn them into raving fans.
Continue the shift into digital marketing and digital course delivery
In addition to the reliance on digital channels for everything (virtual tours, video interviews, etc.) I believe we are going to see a long-term impact on the overall way students consume early content. I believe that college and school fairs will be on the decline, with virtual fairs and other portal websites becoming more popular. This will also focus more students and parents to turn to the web to get their answers…. thus, an increased need in SEO & SEM (search engine optimization and marketing). Additionally, in the higher education space, more students will be staying closer to home, both for security, as well as ease of returning home, should another quarantine take place. More schools will also HAVE to accommodate these students with more hybrid and flexible online course options.
Don’t forget about your current families
From a financial standpoint, schools will need to be much more aware of the fiduciary impact on the market and employment of their current families, as well as how best to serve their EXISTING families changing financial needs. It is imperative that admission teams think about the wording of their value propositions to demonstrate the true strength of their school’s programming.
How our society, and how schools, are going to respond to the challenges that COVID-19 has presented is still being figured out. But school enrollment professionals must be thinking now about how they are going to reach prospective families in the upcoming school year no matter where we stand with our efforts to control the spread of the virus.