Skip to Content Skip to Footer
College Recruitment Gets a Crisis Overhaul

College Recruitment Gets a Crisis Overhaul

Steve Heisler

woman holding up hand wearing graduation robes

As campuses remain closed and COVID-19 weighs on the minds of prospects, it’s time for higher ed marketers to reconfigure tours, social media strategy and other traditional recruitment tactics

Part of the Marketing News Higher Ed Marketing Special Issue

As campus tours went kaput across the country due to stay-at-home orders and strict social distancing guidelines, Siena College in Loudonville, New York, concocted a way to show off its buildings while keeping visitors safe. The marketing and admissions departments worked closely with public health officials and configured a route for cars to enter campus and observe surroundings—a drive-thru campus tour.

On a Saturday in May, a small parade of 14 cars made its way around the grounds, flanked by signs reading “Be Loud and Green.” The car radios were tuned to campus radio station 88.3 FM “The Saint,” playing prerecorded student testimonials on a loop.


Higher education marketers are adapting traditional marketing methods that can’t coexist with the coronavirus outbreak. The pandemic canceled or conflicted with many typical channels, whether because in-person events became too risky or marketing budgets evaporated.

The audience itself is cautious as well, with parents and prospective freshmen already beginning to reevaluate next steps. Art and Science Group, a higher education consultancy, found that as of April, 40% of students had yet to make a deposit at their top-choice school because the majority is unsure whether they’ll attend. Those abandoning their first-choice school are doing so because of affordability, health concerns, the inability to stay for an overnight visit or simply because they didn’t like that school’s response to COVID-19.

Higher ed marketing must adapt in a way that’s sustainable and safe yet still effective. In some cases, that process requires a significant paradigm shift, while other strategies are only in need of a few tweaks. We’ve taken a closer look at five marketing channels in particular—campus tours, social media, open house events, paid ads and direct mail campaigns—and broken down big-picture changes into manageable steps. We’ve also created a ranking system, with five being the greatest level of change required and one being the least. 

Not every example that follows is a perfect substitute for traditional tactics, but even then—and even if it’s not perfectly executed—remember that your audience still wants to hear from you. 

“People have a very high level of grace right now,” says Krista Berend, director of social media at Texas A&M University. “The quality of your livestream, the quality of your ad or the fact that you’re Zooming in and the cat knocks over the camera, or the kid runs into your bedroom or whatever … I mean, when we’re living in a world where [if] Al Roker is doing the weather from his kitchen table, then anything’s possible.”

five out of five yellow bars

Tours — 5/5

In the past: Student-led tours around campus, which included lecture halls and dormitories. Group Q&A sessions with admissions. Customized routes based on major, division or school.

New options: General information video posted online. Google Maps tagging of important areas around campus. Student testimonials crowdsourced from current tour guides and ambassadors. Q&A sessions conducted over Zoom.

Rush Materials Online

Campus tours are one of the most effective tools in a higher ed marketer’s belt. A survey by college search platform Scior found that 80% of high school juniors and 84% of parents rated campus visits as either “very important” or “extremely important.” Schools agree, with 98-99% of 115 nonprofit universities, surveyed by the higher ed firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz, labeling visits as “effective.” The tours must march on, even if nobody is physically marching onto campus.

While nothing can truly replicate the experience of a visit, marketers can adopt a piecemeal approach in offering prospective students a taste from afar, starting with an audit of materials that already exist.

Accomplish the simpler tasks first: Any hard copy brochures handed out before tours can be digitized and emailed directly to prospects. Capture video of preview presentations that occur before tours, as they’ll provide a concise overview of the school that’s not only easily digestible from afar but can be watched any time.

Live presenters will need to be replaced, but this might allow for marketing to play a larger role in crafting the message. For example, Bucknell University started with a slide deck and transformed it into a standalone video that includes voiceover and messages from school administrators and faculty who may otherwise not have the time to swing by a live session.

Student Speakers

Student involvement remains paramount to recruitment. “When somebody visits the college, it’s not the director of admissions that gives the walking tour—it’s always a current student,” says Robert Carroll, co-founder of digital tour platform CampusReel. “Content made by students … more effectively captures [some] of the most important elements of an in-person visit, which [are] people and community elements. People can go on Google Images and see the quad and the dorms. What people are really trying to figure out [in person] is, ‘Can I see myself among [the students]?’”

Solicit video testimonials directly from campus ambassadors. This material allows students to speak more freely about their experience and showcase the personalities that make up your student body. Upperclassmen can cover what your university is like under some semblance of normalcy, such as campus life, annual traditions and extracurriculars. Rising sophomores may speak to how the second half of their freshman year was upended by COVID-19 and how the university responded to the outbreak.

Your existing roster of tour guides is a great first place to look for your on-camera personalities, particularly because those students have already been cleared to speak on behalf of the university and possess basic presentation skills: They know to smile, speak in an engaging fashion and let their personalities shine.

Google Maps

Google Maps is an easy way to virtually walk around neighborhoods and can be used similarly on campus. Even when tours were in full swing, prospective students and their parents had the option of using the tool to preview school grounds. Although it’s a great way to admire your school’s architecture, it fails to present much else, including the ability to customize a route based on major.

Schools might consider working with a company such as CampusReel to evolve the process of poking around Google Maps into something that more closely resembles an in-depth tour. CampusReel’s software is built on crowdsourcing—students may shoot short videos and upload them, tagged to a particular location in Google Maps. Schools can also add prerecorded video from inside buildings and display facts about the university, saving prospects from having to consult multiple documents.

Not all schools have the financial resources to work with a third party, but tech-savvy marketers can take full advantage of Google’s functionality to include custom markers on maps; it takes a bit of coding, but the site’s tutorial helps. Don’t forget to venture off campus by identifying popular restaurants, shops and other attractions, with links to Yelp reviews.

three out of five yellow bars

Social Media — 3/5

In the past: Regular updates on campus events and news. Student-run accounts. A mix of current and archived content. Playful tone.

New options: Increased engagement. Emphasis on student voices. A less playful tone.

Watch Your Language

Berend, of Texas A&M, says her day-to-day responsibilities have not changed much since the pandemic hit in mid-March. What has changed is the mindset of prospective students who have likely been inundated with messages about COVID-19 across every possible social media channel.

“They’re living in a world dominated by screens,” Berend says. “What’s helpful for marketers in thinking about them is that most of us—our lives have been upended in some regard, too. It’s easy for us to think about, ‘How would I want my student [to receive] this?’”

The answer, she says, is to simply be honest and direct. For example, it’s advisable to post about your university’s response to COVID-19, particularly how you are ensuring student safety when they return to campus (all while avoiding the phrase, “In these trying times…”). 

Berend recommends striking an upbeat but tempered tone, so do away with text that conveys an abundance of elation. Eschew exclamation points and all-caps words, which may read as feigned enthusiasm. There will be plenty of time for genuine excitement once campus is humming again.

Separate Social Channels

The competition for eyeballs, likes and shares right now is particularly fierce. “Before COVID, families might visit one or two campuses as they start to think about college choices,” says La Dawn Duvall, executive director of visitor and parent services, communications and public affairs at the University of California, Berkeley. “Because [there’s] potential for a family to visit 15, 20 colleges … from the comfort of their own home, it’s more important now to create methods by which someone knows how to get to you.”

Incoming freshmen also have little time or patience for digging through your social media feeds to find relevant information. Consider opening separate accounts with the sole purpose of sharing relevant content to high school students. Reserve the main channels to focus on bigger-picture university news, such as research studies, while the marketing-focused channels can talk about campus life and be run by students themselves—which feels more personal.

Post From the Past

In the absence of new events and happenings to document, archived content can do the heavy lifting of filling up your feeds and telling incoming freshmen the story of what campus will look like soon, even if it’s not until their sophomore year. Archive photos can highlight dorm and campus life, which have mostly fallen by the wayside during stay-at-home rules.

No need to dig too deep, either: Feel free to repost content that has already enjoyed a long shelf life on social media. Just don’t forget to clarify exactly when this content was created, as it’ll likely depict students interacting without social distancing.

Instagram remains the most popular social channel among college-aged students, according to Business Insider, so stay on the platform but consider increasing the frequency by which you post Instagram stories—schools can better control exactly when this content is viewed and won’t need to comb their main feed and delete posts, because Instagram stories disappear automatically after 24 hours. “If there is a huge announcement or outbreak … it doesn’t matter how well-crafted or well-strategized your message, it’s going to fall on deaf ears if it goes out at the wrong time,” Berend says.

four out of five yellow bars

Open Houses — 4/5

In the past: In-person Q&A sessions with faculty and admissions officers. One-on-one meetings with professors from different departments.

New options: Video call Q&A sessions. Increased number of spokespeople. Earlier contact with classmates.

Don’t Zoom Onto Zoom

“The biggest mistake I see clients making right now is just … “Hey, let’s roll out a PowerPoint slide, we’ll have a bunch of talking heads and we’ll open it up to questions at the end,” says Scott Rhodes, senior strategist at the higher ed agency Echo Delta. 

Instead, take this opportunity to break up what was once a catchall explanation of the general university. Offer more sessions than normal and specialize them by major, interests or geographical location—whatever makes the most sense for your university. Large groups on video calls can be intimidating and are not conducive to the kinds of casual conversations before and after the session that might arise in person and connect potential students with each other.

If possible, include one-on-one breakout conversations as part of your open house schedule. Individualized attention sets your university apart. “It really is a way to showcase how hands-on you are as an institution,” Rhodes says.

Make More with Less

Duvall oversees Cal Day, an immersive, annual event in mid-April that offers 500 in-person sessions and draws more than 40,000 prospective freshmen. This year, with the understanding that students are trapped at home with a lot on their minds, they made the event more manageable by expanding it to Cal Week while still offering upwards of 250 sessions.

Cal Week was a success not just because it required a massive, last-minute rework, but for its ability to include students who may not otherwise have visited the campus due to financial or logistical restrictions. This group is significant: In 2017, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that 44% of students did not visit their first-choice school during the admissions process, and 75% said it was due to financial constraints.

To increase the accessibility of prospective freshmen weekends and accommodate stay-at-home orders, higher ed institutions can consider moving some or all open-house events online even after pandemic restrictions are lifted. This move also serves to attract more alumni because they wouldn’t have to travel to be a presenter; their perspective can directly address parents’ concerns about the ROI of a college degree and the doors it opens.

three out of five yellow bars

Paid Ads — 3/5

In the past: Advertising is a staple in marketing budgets and depicts the entire college experience.

New options: Consider redistributing the funds to other areas, and if not, focus away from student life. 

Is Now the Time?

Just because other brands and schools are expressing their feelings on the pandemic doesn’t mean your school is required to weigh in right away. “Being reactive is not the best strategy,” Berend says. “It might not be the best time to advertise, and that’s OK. A lot of times, marketers don’t want to miss the next big thing … but I am definitely in the camp that you speak when you have something to say.”

However, advertising space is purchased far in advance, and it may be too late to receive a refund. In that case, consider replacing your planned ad with something that speaks to how your university is addressing the pandemic. For example, after SXSW was cancelled, Texas A&M found itself with billboard and newspaper space to fill, but without the audience it expected. They chose to put together a piece that showcased one of the school’s researchers who, at the time, was receiving attention for their tuberculosis vaccine and how it might help in the fight against COVID-19.

two out of five yellow bars

Direct Mailers — 2/5

In the past: Communication with parents. Primarily focused on attending classes and living on campus.

New options: Share COVID-19 news. Promote online courses.

Remember the Parents

Parents of college-bound high school seniors are having second thoughts. According to recent data gathered by Lipman Hearne, 32% of the 300 parents surveyed are weighing possibly abandoning their child’s first-choice school, and more than half expect a discount on tuition if next semester exists online-only.

They continue to focus on the pragmatism of a college education. “It comes down to … that question of, ‘What is the value of a higher education degree?’” says Jessica Stoddard, director of marketing and brand management at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. “They want to get [their kids] into the places that will get them jobs.” 

The USPS is a great way to get brochures that might otherwise be distributed on campus or at college fairs into the hands of parents. They may not be privy to emails sent by universities directly to students, but they still check the household snail mail.

School Safety

Most of the material in your university’s direct mail can remain the same, but the increased competition for eyeballs and dollars means that personalization will win the day. Names can be printed in big letters and the pieces can be further customized to include information about online classes and what the university response has been to COVID-19. Alleviate fears that parents may have about safety and the ROI of college, particularly one their child may not be attending in person next semester.

“We’re telling colleges to be crystal clear on the steps that they have taken to make the campus safe for the fall,” Rhodes says.

A step-by-step guide to your university’s cleaning protocol and quarantine procedures reminds parents that your school is erring on the side of caution, even as stay-at-home orders vary by state. But just as important is the diligence of ensuring none of the photos could trigger a social distancing alarm. Remove shots of in-person graduation ceremonies, packed freshman orientation events and homecoming games. Right now, the priority is getting students in the door, even if it’s a virtual one, so you can later provide them the full college experience they’ve been looking forward to. 

Illustrations by Bill Murphy.

Steve Heisler served as staff writer at the American Marketing Association. His work can be found in Rolling Stone, GQ, The A.V. Club and Chicago Sun-Times. He may be reached at