“When we get back to Normal…”
I recently saw someone flail their hands in front of their mouths after saying those words, as if trying to grasp the utterance out of the air before it could land in our midst, flaunting its elusiveness.
That little moment illustrated for me the larger reality of This Moment.
Those who are looking for the road back to Normal are not only going to need a new map, they’re going to need a new destination, because Normal isn’t there anymore.
(Before anyone corrects my cartography, I will assure you that, should your travel plans literally include heading to that place in central Illinois where Interstates 35, 55, and 74 converge, you will, in fact, find yourself in Normal.
But it may be one of the only Normals left.)
In my previous installment, I wrote about a series of conversations I’ve been convening this summer with enrollment leaders around the country, representing institutions whose sizes and market positions vary from small, regional scrappers to large, global class-shapers.
Despite our institutional differences, the assembled leaders—many of whom were meeting each other for the first time in these groups of three to six—rapidly eased into open and honest conversations, the kind that comes from having a common language to describe the worries and wins that mark the lives of today’s enrollment leaders.
These “Group Therapy Roundtables,” as Chris George, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at St. Olaf College coined them (a name that stuck), each became rest stops for fellow travelers to pause in the midst of a pandemic that had thrown our already unpredictable work into—well, whatever lurks in the unchartered territory beyond unpredictable.
While many of these leaders include student retention in their portfolio, the focus of these conversations narrowed to this moment: how to shelter the fragile results of our recruitment efforts amid a growing supercell of disease, social unrest, immigration policy shifts, and institutional crisis mitigation, all of which darkened the skies of days that normally (there’s that word again) would be a time to recalibrate and start planning for coming recruitment cycles.
As Rob Springall, Muhlenberg’s Vice President for Enrollment Management, put it, “How do you make time for [strategic planning] in the midst of focusing so much on what’s immediately in front of us?”
It was a sentiment that threaded through each of these GTRs—so we made some space for that in our conversations.
Regarding one particular item creeping ever closer behind what was immediately in front of us, we shared a similar prediction: this year’s recruitment season will not look anything like previous seasons. More than one leader offered, with the kind of half-chuckles designed to soften a sharper truth, “If you thought this year was hard … .”
For example, let’s consider the time-honored ritual of Fall Travel, a season-plus-strategy mashup so ingrained in our profession that it merits the use of capital letters. It’s a time for fresh-faced admission counselors to pack their travel cases for the first time and hop in rental cars bound for their inaugural recruitment trips, or seasoned travelers to review their notes from last year, tweak their plans a bit, and head to the airport for three weeks to recruit abroad. It’s three months of college fairs, coffee chats, conferences and counselor receptions.
At least that’s what it looked like in The Before Times.
Many (if not most) high schools are not offering in-person visits from college reps, even if they are planning to open in the fall. College fairs are already relocating from crowded high school gyms and cavernous exhibit halls to webcams and tiny screens. Friendly one-on-one chats with students in cozy corner coffee shops will be limited, as well. Conferences—those great Cuisinarts of ideas and social connections—are going to feel different from our couches. And— much as we might enjoy a casual conversation with the college counselor standing next to us in the buffet line as we both wait for the scrambled egg tray to reappear at our counselor breakfast program—we’ll have to look elsewhere for those conversations.
Jetting off for three weeks to recruit abroad? Plenty of passport pages will remain unstamped this fall as travel restrictions limit our ability to enter other countries.
And we haven’t even mentioned how the intersection of cancelled standardized test administrations and the rapidly expanding test-optional/test-blind movement will press down on the availability of names for senior search and future pool building.
Lest it all seem diminished, many admissions offices’ budget lines for airfare, food, vehicle rental and lodging are burning at a much slower rate, leaving a surplus unanticipated when budgets were submitted months ago.
But then come those emails from college finance offices, wondering when they can set up a chat to discuss how those slower-burning admissions travel budgets might help plug some expanding deficit holes, a different kind of “less than.”
What to do?
For starters, I recommend that we pause before responding to that well-meaning email from the finance office, and consider how we might reinvest some of those budgeted dollars to increase revenue in the top half of your college’s budget sheet, rather than shrink the expense line on the bottom half (while—in a BOGO of the worst kind—further shrinking the potential for revenue in the top half).
One of our GTR colleagues, Alexa Gaeta, Vice President for Enrollment and Dean of Admission at Agnes Scott College, was onto something when she expressed her wish to be able to travel ahead in time two years, see what the recruitment world looked like, and then come back, an enrollment Marty McFly, to share with her team what she has seen so they could start preparing for it now.
As we think about how to leverage some of our unspent travel budget, let’s turn Alexa’s wish into a thought exercise and see where that might take us …
For the sake of this thought exercise, let’s presume that a miracle has happened and an effective COVID vaccine were to become instantly and broadly available, eradicating the threat of the disease and allowing us to return—if we choose—to the way we had been doing things in The Before Times (i.e., “back to normal”). Would we, in fact, revert to our old practices, or would we continue to develop the virtual infrastructures we built out of necessity to help land our classes?
Given how colleges redirected their energies to so-called “virtual programming”—online admitted student programs, send-off receptions, one-on-one Zoom meetings between students and faculty, or school counselor group chats—now is a time to think more deeply about this type of programming, as my RHB colleague Sam Waterson puts it, not as the stopgap fix from the spring of 2020, but as a robust channel in your recruitment arsenal with powerful potential on par with in-person recruitment. In fact, “virtual,” which suggests something is “almost” or “nearly” the real thing, might be selling short the real power of this type of programming.
Let’s not think about how we can replicate our on-campus programs for the digital world, but how we can use these digital in-person programs to create new ways of connecting our prospects and their families with our greatest resources—faculty, staff and students—to inspire our prospective students to become applicants and our admitted applicants to become enrolled students?
What can you do with your recruitment efforts if you are no longer bound by room capacities for on-campus programs? Or where students from great distances can explore your institution in intimate ways without having to invest the time or money to visit your campus? Rather than a full day of one-size-fits-many programming, what could you do in two hours of well-crafted and focused programming?
How can you harness the power of your CRM to take advantage of signals students are sending you, either through direct communication or through indirect browsing behavior on your website, to build more dynamic, student-journey-driven communications and targeted digital in-person programs? (Shameless plug: my colleagues at RHB know a thing or three about helping you create precisely this kind of magic and more in Slate and Salesforce.)
Can you deploy your admissions officers differently? For example, how does not being able to—or not necessarily needing to—physically travel to a territory change the way you think about recruiting in that territory?
Does it give you the courage to test out some new territories that are beyond the usual suspects? (If you’re looking for opportunities to increase access for students who may not come from well-served parts of the country, might you—and some like-minded colleges—be able to join forces with your virtual programming for the greater good? This spring’s StriveScan programming is a beautiful example of that.)
While we’re at it, should a “territory” necessarily be a geographically defined area? Or can we think about a type of student? Is it science students from middle-income, mid-sized communities that “feel” like the community where your school is based? Is it musically inclined kids from places that have burgeoning community music schools or citywide string ensembles? How does thinking in student types shift the way you target your recruitment efforts, leveling up your efforts from push-pull communications, drip- or journey-based campaigns, to the more precious high-touch human interactions, even if (or especially if) it means you don’t need to put “boots on the ground?”
How does this change your thinking about staffing when one of your strongest recruiters can meet with students in Westchester in the morning, Chicago Scholars at noon, and University Prep in Seattle in the afternoon?
If you have staff members dedicated to international recruitment, as Eva Blanco Masias, Santa Clara’s Vice President for Enrollment, suggests, are there opportunities to refocus some of their time during what would have been extended travel to lift your staff who are newer in career, helping them learn about the complexities and nuances of SEVP, CIS, IACAC and the rest of the alphabet soup that marks the specialized yet transferable world of international recruitment?
Can a college with a historically regional draw—especially one in a region where the demographic outlook is bleaker than most—build a more diverse geographic portfolio by exploring and “visiting” new markets for students who fit well with their mission?
How can we use this time of upheaval to advance our cause? Consider this a dress rehearsal for the markets so many of us will face in 2026.
As we watch Normal recede in our rearview mirrors, how will we drive forward into this new future?
As my own institution, Lawrence University, embarks on that journey, I am reminded of a passage from one of my favorite books, “Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott:
“E.L. Doctorow once said that, ‘writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.”