12 March 2021
A year of COVID-19: staying connected with US students

When the pandemic was declared a national emergency one year ago, panic ensued on college campuses across the country. Travel bans and lockdowns followed suit, and it was unclear just how the higher ed sector would be affected long-term.

After twelve months of life upended, those effects and the strategy to manage them have emerged clearly.

A report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed that undergraduate enrollment is down 4.5%, while graduate enrollment is up 4.3% this spring from last. Overall college enrollment is running 2.9% below last spring’s level, but community colleges remain the worst-hit sector down 9.5%.

As cases decline and vaccine administration increases, there is hope forbut no promise ofa relatively normal 2021-2022 school year. Still, many campuses remain closed, and many students are stuck in a rut of enduring anxiety about their future.

Peer-to-peer chat

In this liminal phase before victory over COVID-19 is declared, peer-to-peer interactions are essential. Student decision-making is influenced in a powerful way by chatting online with peers.

You’ll want to account for this inclination. When the solution you provide isn’t what students are looking for, they’ll find it elsewhere. 

If you can’t connect a prospective student with a current student quickly, you relinquish the role of influencer. They may end up chatting with a disgruntled student who quit in the midst of lockdown because they were dissatisfied with online learning.

The key is to leverage transparency with your students by letting your best advocates shape the narrative with their own lived experiences.

Saint Peter’s University wanted to attract a diverse cohort of students, whether instate, international or first generation. It was a challenge they’d long struggled with, and they believed conveying authenticity would be their solution.

They launched the Unibuddy platform just before the pandemic hit, and saw 900+ chats with prospective students from 30 different countries in a matter of several months.

Enrollment Marketing Specialist Laura Patnaude said, “We wanted to connect with prospective students where they were online. We decided to implement Unibuddy as it allows us to connect with students any time and through a means they prefer to use.”

A report by Intead found that 65% of students applied to the universities where they were able to chat with a student ambassador. Even when they chatted after applying, respondents reported increased eagerness to attend, feeling welcomed and encouraged.

Virtual events

Prolonged COVID-19 restrictions have led more universities to turn to virtual enrollment events. From March 2020 to March 2021, there was a 2,250% increase in the number of events hosted on our Unibuddy Live platform. And more students than ever are signing up from across the world.

The aim of these events is to connect with your students and create a sense of belonging – providing them reassurance and guidance on their higher education journey during this crucial period.

Virtual events have replaced key conversion events in the calendar: Open Houses, Admitted Student Days, Applicant Visit Days. Why? You can reach a wider audience, break into new territories, and break down barriers. Plus, your prospects get to connect with staff, students and each other through a medium they’re well-versed in.

Wabash University found that live events were a great catalyst for the conversations that took place on the chat widget. That encouragement of dialogue in the online environment of the events led prospects to reach out to ambassadors more readily afterward.

In fact, they saw a 900% increase in prospect sign-ups to the platform between their first and second events in August and November.

The post-COVID era still feels just beyond reach for US universities one full year into the pandemic. But connecting with students, providing them with reassurance, guidance and consistent communication isn’t.

Through peer-to-peer interactions that boost confidence, and virtual events that create a sense of belonging more than 150 institutions in the US are mitigating the impact and staying connected with their students.

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