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Three Critical Higher Ed Data Points

One us is the parent of a high school student, and the other is a college-student parent and adjunct faculty member. As a result, we’re experiencing firsthand the impact of the coronavirus on students and their schools—and the need for adaptation. Suffice it to say, both of us have had to be a little more lenient about how late our kids sleep in and how “early” they go to bed, and we’ve had to be more active in helping them progress with their studies than we were before COVID-19 was in our vocabulary.

We’re also experiencing the need to adapt as higher ed marketers—and helping our clients do the same. One critical element of the “new normal” is the need to eliminate as much guesswork as possible in understanding what’s on the mind of college prospects, students, and their parents. And that means we’re reading. And reading. And reading. And then interpreting how what we’ve read affects the colleges and universities we serve are. While we’ve seen many interesting studies and data points, there are three that caught our attention because of what they mean for our clients.

Here are those findings, some context from the sources, and how we think colleges and universities should respond:

  • “4 In 10 U.S. Teens Say They Haven’t Done Online Learning Since Schools Closed” (NPR). There are a number of factors influencing this number, including resource gaps, especially between private and public schools. In short, many private schools have technology and other tools that mitigate the challenges, while most public schools aren’t as fortunate. But the predominant reason why students are disconnected is that they’re distracted. As the NPR story notes, “More than 60% said they are worried that they, or someone in their family, will be exposed to the virus and that it will have an effect on their family’s ability to earn a living…And…many of those students have parents or family members who are essential workers, such as nurses, doctors and home health care aides.”

What does this mean for colleges and universities? One issue, of course, is that incoming freshmen may not be as well prepared as their predecessors. However, there are even bigger issues. Even assuming we return to some semblance of normalcy in the fall, many students will be even more prone to mental health issues—which had already been identified as a “crisis” well before the pandemic. This may require additional resources for student support, and it will undoubtedly mean that some students will decide to transfer closer to home, take classes online, or not take classes at all. Speaking of which…

  • 17% of high school seniors are rethinking their options for the fall (The Chronicle of Higher Education). In a study by the Art & Science Group, 17% of high school seniors who were planning to enroll full time at a four-year college now are either thinking about a gap year (35% of those who said they’re reconsidering), enroll part-time in a bachelor’s program (35%), attend a community college (7%), or work full time (6%). What’s motivating them? Amid what the Chronicle calls “jaw-clenching uncertainty,” respondents cited concerns about affordability in a rapidly-changing economy, as well as concerns about a family member’s health.

What does this mean for colleges and universities? This study was conducted when students were still absorbing the shock brought on from the pandemic, so there’s a chance it merely reflects a specific moment in time. However, it’s equally as likely that these numbers may grow as the economic impact worsens and as students get more accustomed to life at home. Either way, colleges and universities will have to work harder than ever to retain students and to mitigate melt. The key will be clear, honest communication with students and their families, conveying a sense of security and anticipating, and responding to, the objections families are likely to put forth. And some colleges—those with large net-export college-student populations nearby, as well as community colleges, to name just two—might actually benefit from this sentiment—if they take a strategic approach.

  • 70% of faculty members had never taught a virtual course before COVID-19 (Bloomberg). While a variety of factors influence student satisfaction, their experience with faculty is among the most important. So, what is the likely effect of moving rapidly to a virtual format? Much will depend upon faculty’s readiness to shift and the degree to which the institution supports them. It’s certain that some classes are hard to teach virtually, so that must be factored into any analysis of this unique situation. However, if a study by Bay View Analytics cited in Bloomberg is any indication, many institutions are ill prepared to serve students online. The majority of faculty—70%—had never taught online before their campuses were closed, and, according to a higher education consultant cited in the story, “Schools that haven’t historically embraced online education are now being forced into it.”

What does this mean for colleges and universities? It’s critical to understand your students’ experience this semester—and to act on this information. For institutions that are serving their students well, it’s not too soon to leverage that advantage. One example: request testimonials about the ways in which your faculty and staff have kept students progressing toward their goals and share those stories far and wide. For those who have had challenges in adapting to the “new normal,” there needs to be an honest conversation about pain points and how to resolve them. As students get more accustomed to online education, they will expect institutions, faculty, and staff to keep pace with industry best practices. A continued reluctance to serve students online, or persistent problems in meeting their expectations, will be less forgivable moving forward.

In the coming weeks, Asher will continue to stay on top of what higher ed decision makers need to consider in advance of the summer and fall academic sessions—while gently nudging our kids toward their laptops. As always, we welcome your comments on the information above, and we’d love to help you navigate the changes affecting your institution and its students. In the meantime, stay safe, everyone!

Written by David Goode, Director of Integrated Marketing, Asher Agency; and Anthony Juliano, Vice President and General Manager of Fort Wayne Office, Asher Agency

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