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As a result of the COVID-19 crisis, colleges and universities across the United States and around the world are facing unprecedented disruption to the lives of students, faculty, and staff, while trying to figure out how to enroll new undergraduate and graduate students during this critical time in the admissions cycle.

And according to a new national survey of 800 prospective and current undergraduate and graduate students conducted by Primacy, the COVID-19 crisis is already having a significant impact on prospective students’ college decision-making process and current students’ lives and academic decisions.

Online Learning: Compromise or Tipping-Point?

Among the key takeaways from the survey, which was conducted by Primacy the weekend of March 20-22, 2020 and covered the entire U.S., is the fact that undergraduates are wary of online learning while graduate students are much more comfortable with the modality.

  • Only 20% of undergraduate prospects strongly or somewhat agreed that “College done online can be just as fulfilling and effective as on campus.”
  • The data also supported other research findings that found graduate students are increasingly interested in hybrid models of learning that combine online and in-person modalities.

There also seems to be a significant financial component to people’s expectations around online learning. Both undergraduate and graduate audiences felt that there was a quality trade-off in online learning that caused them not to want to pay the same amount for online as in-person learning.

One student put it this way: “The virus is forcing all colleges to go online and I refuse to pay a high tuition for online classes.”

On the positive side of the financial ledger, prospects and students felt that online learning could be a more affordable option, which provides colleges and universities an opening in how they price, structure and communicate about their digital learning options. For example, 60% of graduate students and 46% of undergraduate students felt that learning online could be more affordable.

Expectation of High-Touch Communications

In general, survey respondents reported being satisfied with the communications they received from their current school or the schools they were considering but were seeking more proactive communications about the impact COVID-19 was having on schools’ ability to get fully back to operation.

One graduate prospect put it this way: “I have to go to the school’s website to see what to do. I have yet to receive any emails with information.”

On the undergraduate side, prospects are looking for high-touch communications and want to be able to experience the campus and culture of the schools they’re considering as much as possible virtually:

  • 47% are looking for 1-on-1 conversations with admissions 44% are looking for a virtual tour of campus 37% are looking for a website dedicated to admitted students

Meanwhile, graduate prospects have different but equally practical communications needs:

  • 62% are looking for details on how academics are moving online
  • 53% are looking for updates on the timing of admissions decisions
  • 43% are looking for information on how to prepare for their studies

A critical takeaway for college and university communications and enrollment marketing departments is to review the communications you’re sending to your prospects to ensure they’re appropriate for the current environment. This includes digital advertising and nurture sequence email communications coming from your CRM, both of which have the potential to cause unanticipated and unintended marketing missteps. For instance, prospects in the survey commented on the fact that they were still receiving standard admissions emails from the schools they were considering as if nothing had changed in the world.

It's also important for institutions to focus on the things they can control during this crisis. As I wrote last week, there are many things that colleges and universities can do to stay connected with their prospects, including making it as easy as possible to connect with a human being at your organization, from admissions counselors and current students to faculty and alumni. And if human staff are overwhelmed during this critical time of year, consider the use of virtual assistants and chatbots to help triage basic questions. Regardless of the method of communication, the key is a timely response and regular outreach so your prospects don't feel they're going this alone. 

Satisfaction with college communications

Will Disruption Drive Deferment?

The uncertainty around campus closures, the move to all-online learning and potential health risks seems to be causing prospects and current students to consider delaying their educations or transferring to another college or university.

  • 48% of graduate prospects and 29% of undergraduate prospects, respectively, strongly or somewhat agree that “I have considered deferring attending college until COVID-19 passes.”
  • 19% of undergraduate students have already considered transferring to another school

One graduate prospect put it this way: “I’m thinking about taking a year off and seeking out options then.”

Possible COVID-Related Shifts in Areas of Academic Study

The crisis has already caused a not-insignificant number of people to consider changing what they study:

  • 27% of graduate students and 29% of undergraduate prospects say this crisis has impacted what they want to study

Two graduate students said this about possible shifts in academic focus:

  • “Nursing because I want to be able to help people in a moment of crisis.”
  • “Something more resilient to disaster so I will have job security.”


Graduate studies impact COVID-19

Hope vs. Reality: Going Back to Campus and Commencement

Both undergraduate and graduate students surveyed are holding out hope that they can return to campus this spring – and that there may even be regularly scheduled commencement ceremonies – but many are already expecting that they won't return until the fall (at the earliest).

  • 30% of current graduate students surveyed want to know if there will be commencement this spring
  • 59% of undergraduate students expect to return to campus in the fall.

We’re only a few weeks into a massive shift in the education industry. It’s unclear when or even if things will return to normal for institutions, prospects and students. What is clear is that there are opportunities for colleges and universities to act decisively and empathetically, putting a focus on human-to-human communications that recognize the strangeness and challenge of the situation.

Ultimately, learners need higher education and higher education needs learners, so we’ll figure it out together, but it feels like the industry is at an inflection point. There are things that will be forever changed by this and there will be winners and losers; those schools that communicate clearly and go out of their way to make prospects and students feel important in these moments will likely end up on the winning side. So be flexible in your approach to the education you deliver, how you deliver it and how much it costs.

For a full report on the survey, including data insights for all four audiences and additional quotes from respondents, visit this page.