For decades, university representatives have embarked on long voyages to the far-off corners of the planet to partake in an annual ritual of visiting schools, joining university fairs, and interviewing students, all in an effort to recruit applicants to their incoming class. From London to Sydney, Riyadh to Tokyo, the road warriors of university admissions have boarded more flights than many care to remember, visiting high school counseling offices and hotel ballrooms.
As a natural born extravert, I have to admit, there was nothing I loved more than greeting our admissions representatives at the school gates, many of whom have become good friends and colleagues. But despite the joy of having personal contact with our admissions colleagues, I think it's time that we, as an industry, re-evaluate what seems to have become an outdated model of recruitment. Covid-19 has changed many industries, and I think ours might be one of them.
The Old Model: 40 minutes is not enough
Before Covid, our abiding students would normally march into our office with a burrito in one hand and a backpack in the other; and we all know the teenage brain is probably thinking more about the burrito, and next period’s math test than paying attention to the representative in front of them. Sometimes there is a pretty slideshow of students on campus doing cool stuff; but oftentimes representatives don’t bring visual aids. Either way, quite frankly, many of these campuses start to look and sound the same; even as an adult I struggle to see the differences or the “unique” fit factors that would make a college seem appealing to a particular student.
It’s nobody’s fault; reps could be juggling fire and get only a smirk from our IB-weary kids. It is simply not enough time for a student to really get a clear view of the myriad of elements that make your college special. The personal connections and smiling faces, of course, were sometimes deciding factors for students and families. But at our most popular universities, the authentic interactions with students were limited at the crowded tables of a school fair or with rushed representatives quickly whisked away by a waiting taxi.
Our collective carbon footprint
As institutions—both universities and schools—we make pledges towards environmental sustainability. Having an admissions office send representatives to 50+ countries in a recruitment season can’t be doing good things for our collective greenhouse gas emissions. If we’re putting all factors on the scale, this can’t be overlooked. At our school, pre-Covid, we looked at buying carbon offsets for all our international trips. Would universities do the same?
The equity and agony of zoom
When a travel schedule is created, it is completely understandable that certain international schools in each city (particularly when it comes to feeder schools) would be visited, and with a limited amount of time in each city, this can end up being a fairly short list of well-resourced international schools. So who gets left out? Can quality outreach be done to local national-curriculum schools or to the wider community with such limited time?
Beau Benson from Northeastern University shared some thoughts about this year: “We connected with students and counselors at schools which we’ve never visited, in countries to which we’ve never traveled. In total, we welcomed students to Northeastern events from 142 countries… 59 of which we were “visiting” for the first time. In a standard travel season, we typically visit only 45-50 countries. In Fall 2020, we visited more than we did in Fall 2017, Fall 2018, and Fall 2019… combined.”
This is the equity of Zoom. Everyone who is interested and who has an internet connection can join in. Well, maybe not everyone... Being in uber-connected Singapore, it’s easy to forget that high-powered internet is a privilege.
Seray Teleke, Senior Assistant Director of Evaluation at UCLA, elaborates, “We understand that not all students have access to a stable internet connection and this is certainly a big challenge. On the other hand, the virtual environment provided us with the opportunity to connect with students and counselors from areas of the world we weren’t able to visit in person and I see this as a big advantage of virtual recruitment.”
Certainly, we love face-to-face interactions and the “counselor chats” with admissions, so in our office we tried to make space in our schedule to host these virtual counselor chats regularly to maintain our relationships with university representatives, as we know these are important for both sides of the desk.
Conversely, virtual recruiting doesn’t fit all needs. Some universities have noted “zoom fatigue” from students as constituting a big problem the longer the recruitment season went on, with declining numbers attending virtual events.
Meanwhile, counselors keen to connect their students with colleges for a virtual visit were requesting 3:00 a.m. or 4:00 a.m. zoom meetings, which was simply not sustainable for many admissions offices. This is perhaps most challenging for the “one person shop” international recruiters who don’t have the luxury of splitting schedules for various time zones.
But even larger recruitment offices faced this very challenge. Seray Teleke at UCLA explains, “One challenge we had was being able to accommodate all of the individual virtual visit requests we received. With the different time zones we are in and other office commitments, it was not possible to say yes to every request, as much as we wanted to. Our office cares about the mental health and well-being of our staff and we knew from the beginning that we wouldn’t be able to constantly accommodate requests that are late at night or very early in the morning for us. In general, it has worked better for us to accommodate visits when several high schools from the same region came together for information sessions.”
Yes, attendance at online events can be good, but whom are we missing out on? Charlotte Davison, Senior International Officer at Loughborough University, explains, “There is a general concern about attracting those students who aren’t already engaged—those who know about our institution are likely to connect anyway, but do we still meet with the students who are less proactive, or who hadn’t considered us previously? Particularly where they don’t see us at a physical fair and stop by because they read a banner or see a friend talking to us, instead having to opt to sign into a presentation or click on that booth at a virtual fair.”
So how do we drive engagement and bring more students into the virtual visits? We know what does NOT work. Large-scale virtual fairs (often with expensive 3rd-party providers) where students “cluster” to colleges they already know. What can work better? Small-group virtual-themed travel that is geared towards a particular time zone.
We, as counselors, can then be more targeted and engaged when promoting more bespoke programming while keeping the student to university ratio at the right level. For example, 4-5 engineering universities, liberal arts colleges of the west coast, etc. And here I give a special nod to our Dutch colleagues and several U.K. universities who have mastered the art of banding together to bring focused programming that is easy to direct our students towards.
Perhaps what we have learned in our office is that if we do ever return to in-person visits, we have to consider changing our model. We would aim for a more purposeful use of university visits to fill programmatic needs for essay writing, financial aid, career-specific programming, and eliminate visits that only include the “basic” introduction to the university, which can be found online.
Costs to universities
One would automatically assume that the overall expenditure on recruitment in a virtual format would have been reduced without all those flights and hotel stays around the world, but other costs were incurred in the new virtual environment.
Beau Benson says, “We simply reallocated our budget from travel costs to cover the very expensive virtual college fair registration fees; to cover new marketing materials, which suddenly became necessary, including developing a brand new virtual tour; to upgrade our technology, in order to provide students with a ‘best-in-class’ fall virtual open-hour experience; to buy several Zoom webinar licenses to handle our virtual information sessions.”
Virtual recruitment has required a pivot of recruitment costs; how this infrastructure can be maintained and developed over the coming years is yet to be determined. Maybe we’ll be wearing virtual reality headsets for our campus tours in a few short years!
Counselor schedules are busy, particularly at the start of the school year (August to December, for Northern hemisphere schedules). There are some schools that have a small number of university visitors and there are others, like ours, in a very accessible city like Singapore, that receive over 300 visits. If multiplying out the time (1.5 hours) it takes to arrange and host 300 visits, this comes out to 450 hours or 56.25 days of counselor time that we gained back to build programming and engage with our students and families.
We were able to have lunch in our office with each other (Pat eats the same thing every day!) and the first term this year felt a touch more manageable when not cutting off student meetings to run and collect a university representative at the front gates.
From a student perspective, every week we present students with a proposition: either eat lunch with your friends and get some down time before your next class, or you can run to get your lunch and join us in the office to listen to a university presentation. But then we say, you need to show “Demonstrated Interest,” and if you don’t come to the presentation you will disadvantage your application. I’m not sure this supports student wellness, and it probably adds more stress to an already overscheduled teenager.
From the university perspective, Charlotte Davison shares both sides of the wellness spectrum. She notes “The isolation has been tough—after a long day ‘in country’ there is new culture, amazing food, and normally a great group of other reps and counsellors to go out with and take the pressure off, discuss the day and share insights. This is missing when you spend 80 percent of your waking hours at your kitchen table. But, from my health perspective, I’ve learnt to appreciate spending time at home (although a balance would be nice!). I started this job aged 21, and hardly a month had gone by without me flying overseas—definitely impacting my friendships, relationships, and physical health. Spending a year at home without hotel buffet breakfasts, room service, and jet lag has allowed me to feel a lot healthier.”
Where do we go from here?
For the fall of 2021, it doesn’t look like our world will be open for business. Perhaps we’ll have another year of virtual recruitment. But even in just one full year, we can see that our students have quickly adapted to this environment, proactively sought out opportunities to learn more about universities (rather than being spoon-fed in our office), while also making efforts to bridge time zones to connect with universities.
Perhaps universities will pivot their recruitment plans to only visit areas where they see low online engagement? I’m sure someone is measuring that! But before we consider going back to the “old way” of doing things, it’s imperative that we, as an industry, honestly weigh the pros and cons of virtual recruitment.
We should all be considering what is lost and what is gained in this new environment and which recruitment efforts serve the greatest number of students in the most equitable, sustainable, and efficient way.
Robbie Jefferiss is University Advisor at UWCSEA East Campus.