The COVID-19 vaccine rollout earlier this year prompted many institutions to begin making plans for in-person fall semesters. However, with COVID-19 cases on the rise due to the Delta variant and many unvaccinated populations, some schools are still keeping a few of their virtual tools around.
Students are accustomed to -- and maybe a little fatigued by -- virtual offerings at this point, the beginning of the third school year that is once again affected by the pandemic. But as the 2020 enrollment numbers show, it is harder to convince a student to attend a university when their preliminary interactions with it are almost all virtual. How can institutions creatively virtually recruit students and show them the benefits of a college education -- and how can Mentor Collective help?
The COVID-19 Impact
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout has had a significant impact on whether students attend college. Overall undergraduate enrollment declined by 3.6% -- or more than 560,000 students -- from 2019 to 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC). First-time student enrollment dropped by what the NSC called an “unprecedented” 13.1%, with the biggest declines at public two-year and private four-year institutions.
Students are still facing uncertainty about what college admissions processes, and their college education as a whole, will look like this year. Twyla Joseph, a high school student profiled by Time magazine, detailed all of the ways in which her senior year had changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic: she was not able to take the SAT; she does not know her teachers well since all of her classes are online; she no longer sees her track coach, who gave her great advice; and she was furloughed from her job at Panera Bread for five months.
“I literally just thought, What if I took a year off, maybe a year or two, and tried to wait till things were back to normal? I definitely thought, Maybe I just shouldn’t go. Maybe it’s not worth it,” Joseph told the magazine. Mentor Collective program participants reported more than 1,400 issues related to COVID-19 during the pandemic, all of which were reported through the conversation reports and student voice trends captured on Mentor Collective's Partner Dashboard.
One of the biggest changes in the admissions process is the rise of the virtual campus tour. While a digital look at an institution has been an option for many years, it became the only option for many students at the height of the pandemic -- and institutions are keeping it around as the Delta variant ensures the pandemic continues to plague many aspects of daily life.
The virtual campus tour is far from the only change institutions made in the last year and a half. But it is a good illustration of a change with sticking power that has a significant impact on how institutions recruit students -- and one that can present some barriers to certain groups.
How Mentor Collective Can Help
The benefit of campus tours, even before the pandemic, is that they are often led by student ambassadors who intimately know the university and are trained in selling it to prospective students.
A Mentor Collective mentor plays a similar role, but in a much more personalized -- and therefore arguably more effective -- way. Building a strong connection with a peer like a Mentor Collective mentor gives students a sense of belonging on campus.
The mentor will likely have lived the in-person school experience and can provide a supplement to a virtual tour. A tour guide paid by the school may not want to tell a prospective student that no one actually eats at the south campus dining hall or that students should avoid a particular dorm that does not have air conditioning. But a mentor will be honest.
The mentor can also capitalize on the near-peer aspect of their relationship with the student and tailor their advice to the student’s personal path. This helps the student learn more about things that may apply only to them -- like what it is like to attend an institution that is out-of-state for them but has a large number of in-state students -- or things that they may feel uncomfortable asking about in a large-group setting -- like what people actually mean when they say “office hours.”
"My favorite thing was the fact that I got to speak to an ACTUAL student who has experienced an education in the School of Communications at Montclair," said one Mentor Collective student.
Virtual tours are often presented as a way to remove barriers to entry for students who may not be able to visit campus in person, because they cannot afford the travel or because they may not be able to leave their responsibilities at home. But this assumes that all students have equal access to high-quality, reliable internet. Research shows that is not the case: It is estimated that more than 42 million Americans don’t have access to broadband internet, according to BroadbandNow. This is another place where Mentor Collective mentors can help. A student may not be able to stream a virtual tour, but they likely can receive text messages that show a mentor’s personal photos or short videos of campus. If students prefer an old-fashioned phone call to ask quick questions about campus life, Mentor Collective members are happy to take that route, too.
Perhaps most importantly, a mentor can speak honestly about the actual return on investment this specific student will receive from this specific institution. First-generation students in particular often do not have a personal connection with someone whose experience demonstrates the benefit of a college degree. A first-generation mentor can show them -- in an approachable and understandable way that addresses their distinct questions -- how a college degree can change their life.