In higher education, summer looks a lot different. Campuses that would normally be filled with student visits and orientation are now relatively empty. Enrollment offices have had to drastically change their approach to prepare for next fall. In Facing Today’s New Norm in Higher Ed: Perspectives From the Enrollment Office, we sat down with enrollment professionals to hear how their institutions adjusted to challenges caused by COVID-19. You can watch the full webinar whenever you’d like, but here’s a couple highlights from our conversation with Mike and Sam.
- Mike Pegram, dean of student enrollment, Southeast Community College
- Sam Veeder, associate dean of college enrollment and director of financial aid, University of Rochester
How COVID-19 affected enrollment offices
Mike: It was a disruption to every institution and I remember having to pivot very quickly. I oversee over 50 staff members and our initial plans were to talk about how we would be having a reduced presence on campus and that would change within hours at times. I never quite thought the governor’s press conferences would become must-see TV but that was essentially how things got to be. We very quickly had to pivot to being completely remote.
As of March 13 our campus operations were essentially shut down. So our plans changed very quickly. We even canceled all of our classes, even online learning, during our spring break week as well. So we had to very quickly transition from being on-site and figuring out how we were going to manage the day-to-day schedules of everybody working remotely and ensuring they had the technology to do so.
I think that one of the biggest challenges that we had initially was Career and Technical Education — we had to think through those hands-on instruction obstacles. For instance, providing lab experiences for students in a welding program when they may not have access to the facilities – it was a very stressful time. And I think that it demanded a lot of agility to be able to do that. I would say I was very proud about how flexible people tended to be. One of the benefits of Southeast Community College is that we have been doing a lot of distance learning for quite a while. So, for many or our faculty, the notion of having to switch their lecture material to an online format wasn’t too much of a stretch. It was a very quick process, but I thought overall we did the best we could under the circumstances we were in and I felt the institution was very responsive as far as being people centered, and primarily being concerned about everybody’s safety.
Sam: I do remember saying to my staff in the weeks approaching up to when we were all sent home that we won’t move online. You know, I couldn’t imagine that happening, because Rochester is a very traditional residential campus with very little online classes. And so to take an institution of our size and move completely online in 10 days – I agree that we were also very agile as well.
I’m just so impressed by how well the faculty and staff responded so quickly in doing what we needed to do to ensure that the semester continued. We were just approaching spring break when everything broke, so it helped that students were gone for a week. We extended spring break by two or three days and then had everything up and running online. By the following Wednesday in New York State, the governor’s daily updates also became must-see TV. They just ended this week.
The other thing that happened right around March 22 were questions about room and board refunds with students spending about half of the semester not living or eating on campus anymore. We had to make some pretty quick decisions about how to do that and how that affected financial aid. We didn’t have a lot of information yet about the CARES act and how that could be used, but we worked swiftly to process refunds on room and board of approximately $14 million back to students, prorating their room and board for the remainder of the semester. So all-in-all I think I’m surprised by how well it went and how quickly we transitioned, and how accommodating all of the faculty, staff and students were.
I know they didn’t all necessarily love finishing the semester online, but everybody transitioned very well. I think one of the other things that we also did very quickly, that many other institutions probably did as well, is move to a pass-fail policy for grading so as not to disadvantage students who may have had more difficulty learning online for the remainder of the semester.
Virtual recruiting efforts
Sam: Orientation and academic advising were big challenges as well for us. As we approached the end of March, beginning of April, and we sent our admissions out to high school seniors and financial aid awards. We did stick to our May 1 deposit deadline although we were pretty lenient in extensions to May 15. In the month of April, we typically would have had several “experience days” events for admitted students to come back to campus and take one last look as they make their decision.
So we pretty quickly moved all of our events online, running information sessions every Monday and Friday for sophomores and juniors. Three times a day on Monday and Friday, we developed the college workshop series that ran on Wednesdays in April and May with topics like the college admissions essay, finding the right fit, college admissions interviewing 101, the University of Rochester application workshop, and financial aid. For us, the visit to campus and the interview are critical to a student being admitted and selecting to come to Rochester.
We also continued virtual interviews with video chat for high school juniors and transfers, and we did transition our orientation program online starting earlier this summer — which typically is just a few days before the semester starts in August.
We implemented a system called Calendly, an automated calendar system for students and parents to make appointments with their counselors. We’ve also been running Zoom meetings with our parents and students in order to try to maintain some of that face-to-face contact.
Mike: Everybody is still working remotely – we have plans to start to have staff return to offices around July 6, right after the holiday.
Similar to what Sam was saying, March, April, May, when would typically have had a lot of large on-campus events, bringing students to campus, showing them the spaces and registering them for classes. However, our demographic is different in that SCC is an open enrollment institution. We don’t necessarily have application deadlines – we will literally accept people up until the start of the fall semester. So, for us, what we really sort of relied on was getting folks to campus to meet with advisors to meet with staff to help answer their questions to get them started. And those things went away quickly.
Of course, we were in the midst of other major changes at the institution which included implementing a much more high-touch advising mode,l and we had plans in place to go live with that this spring. And very quickly had to pivot that to going online and virtual as well. Our academic advising model, in general, is being overhauled and now it has had to switch again. We created a lot of modular orientations, new student enrollment events, making sure that students had access to the technology that we utilize to be in touch with them, so that all had to change very quickly as well.
We are currently working on plans for when we do resume campus operations this fall. What those face-to-face, first weeks of welcome and orientation activities will look like for folks that are coming back. Very similar and, in some respects to what Sam was saying, a lot of the services that we’re typically able to offer really rely on being able to sit face-to-face across the desk with the student. Those all went away pretty quickly, and we very quickly have had to pivot to how we can best make this accessible for students.
We spent a lot of time with our technology infrastructure, making sure that students are able to contact us remotely. We schedule Zoom appointments with advisors and students, and try to get them connected. By and large you just kind of deal in the best you can with the cards that you have. It certainly has looked different with us. The college generates a lot of tour activity – we often have large groups and high school visits and families that will come tour the facilities and we’re having to reevaluate what that looks like for the fall when we return.
We’re also have been in the midst of the higher learning commission, our accrediting agency, doing something called the Quality Initiative. We had started this about a year ago and the purpose of this initiative is to really empower our students and to enforce resiliency skills — and so that also has had to shift. Obviously this is new to us and it’s just as new, if not more, to our students.
We’ve had to be very hands-on as much as we possibly can with getting in front of students and communicating this directly as we can with them and doing it in an alternative way other than having them on campus.
To hear the live Q&A portion and full remarks from our presenters, view the full webinar.