Technology has changed higher education dramatically since I last sat in a college classroom. Everything from library resources to career services is more streamlined and accessible. Students from around the world can access similar materials and opportunities.
And yet, place still matters. Students choose their colleges for different reasons, ranging from the practical to the romantic, but for many the deciding factor is that ineffable sense of belonging that comes the first time you step onto a campus that truly feels like home. When it happens, students know this is where they want to spend their next four years. And when students find that home away from home, colleges can expect higher retention and graduation rates.
So what happens when students can’t set foot on campuses at all?
This is one of the many challenges facing colleges this fall, as a beloved American tradition – the college road trip – is off the table thanks to Covid-19. How do students and colleges make that match when they can’t connect in person? How are colleges supposed to enchant and recruit students from afar? Does any college website “feel like home?”
We are going to hear a lot about the new practicalities of college selection. Demonstrable return-on-investment has never before received such scrutiny. But if part of the college search and recruitment process is an emotional connection – that chance to feel like a school is the perfect fit – colleges’ retention rates rely on finding a way to create a similar connection, virtually.
Technology can easily replicate the information-sharing aspect of this process. Students already live much of their lives online, so they know where to find the facts and figures.
The true challenges come in conveying what makes a special place special. And for that kind of connection, we need to look at some other examples.
Divorce rates in the United States have been declining for decades. This is no doubt in part linked to young people getting married later in life, as more fully formed adults. But another important factor is that technology has made finding a compatible life partner far easier than it used to be. In a world of online dating apps, long gone are the days of restricted dating pools and blind dates set up by friends who should have known better.
With almost limitless options now available to them, young people are having far more success finding the one.
College recruiters have a lot to learn from the world of online dating. Nearly one in three first-year college students don’t return to college for sophomore year, And now, because of Covid-19, recruiters are being forced to ask themselves: How do we ensure that students are connecting with colleges that are the right fit in a virtual setting? With so many options and the lack of an in-person connection, how do we recreate that feeling of belonging, increasing their chances of staying enrolled and eventually graduating?
It’s possible through a sort of higher education matchmaking. College recruiters can use web-based apps to connect with students in real time who are the right fit for their schools. They can sort through their matches and meet them in, for now, virtual college fairs.
These matches would be based on shared interests. After all, it makes no sense for students to search endlessly through colleges that don’t have the programs they’re excited about, or for schools without major sports programs to squander time and energy trying to recruit students who ultimately intend to rely on athletic scholarships
By matching student interests with college resources and programs, these kids will have their best chance to find the schools where they will succeed. And as an added bonus, this method will encourage students to spend more time tailoring their college applications to schools where their unique personalities will shine, instead of feeling the pressure to generalize and make themselves seem like the perfect fit for any school. Likewise, colleges will be able to focus their efforts on recruiting students who will add to their campus culture and will benefit from the specific academic and social environments they offer.
I am hopeful that things will soon change for the better, but for now, we have to make the best of a complicated situation. Ultimately, I think the best thing we can offer our kids is the certainty that, even with so many unknowns, the place they choose to study will feel like home.
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