For the past 47 years, NACAC has brought together students and admission professionals at college fairs around—and out of—the country. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person events are no longer possible, so for the first time, NACAC will host virtual college fairs.
And in these unprecedented times, there is unprecedented opportunity. For students who may have not been able to travel to an in-person college fair in the past, the virtual college fairs offer a new way to connect.
This fall season, there are four student fairs. NACAC invited more than 1.5 million students, mostly juniors and seniors, to attend the fairs, as well as 100,000 counselors.
Even though things look quite different this year, high school counselors are eager to help students and their families navigate the college admission process and introduce them to colleges virtually.
Theresa Dethlefsen, a school counselor at Thomas S. Wootton High School (MD), said she has taken her students to in-person NACAC college fairs in the past and that her students have “gotten a lot out of them.” This year, she said, her students will attend virtual fairs.
“NACAC has taken our advice and asked what we believe our students need and they are implementing those ideas as best they can,” said Dethlefsen.
Each virtual college fair will occur over several days. Students will also be able to interact with college admission officers in small groups, listen to live sessions on various topics, and ask specific questions. Many live sessions will be recorded to enable students to review them at a time when it is convenient for them.
School counselors have students develop lists of questions for the institutions they are interested in before participating, just as they would if they were attending an in-person fair. Dethlefsen said she predicts many questions about the role of standardized test scores in admission decisions. “Many of my students have reached out to me asking questions about how admission officers are going to look at their application since so many institutions are going test-optional,” said Dethlefsen. “How should they improve their applications to stand out in lieu of not having SAT or ACT scores? Hopefully, colleges can help students answer these kinds of questions.”
Six hundred institutions participate in each virtual college fair and have multiple opportunities to create touchpoints with students. “We’ve recommended that each college offer between two to four sessions each on the day of the fair, between 30 to 45 minutes each,” said Pia Brown, director of National College Fairs, Programs and Services at NACAC. “The student fairs are eight hours long. The students will add the sessions they’re interested in to their virtual itinerary. They can participate in many sessions as will fit the time period of the fair. They can also attend as many fairs as they want.”
Ramon Blakley, director of recruitment at The University of Texas at Austin, said it’s especially important to attend NACAC’s fairs because the pandemic has cut all in-person recruiting events this fall. “Many of the districts we serve have announced that they will be limiting visitors and canceling in-person events,” said Blakley. “Attending virtual college fairs is one of the many things we are doing to make sure students have options.”
At Michigan State University, the sentiment is similar. “With the challenges of in-person recruiting this fall due to the novel coronavirus, we understand the need to participate in virtual programming to reach the students and families who are excited and maybe even nervous about planning and preparing for college,” said Sylvia Hernandez, manager of Illinois recruitment for Michigan State.
“We know that now, more than ever, paying for college is one of the top concerns we’re hearing from students and families; participating in the virtual fairs will be an important part of our recruitment strategy as we seek to educate students about college costs,” said Edward Troung, associate director of admissions at the University of Puget Sound (WA). “One of our most important messages is to look beyond the sticker price and take advantage of our scholarships and financial aid. The NACAC virtual fairs will help attendees see the range of options, including private institutions, that students may mistakenly assume are out of reach due to cost.”
Admission officers participating in the virtual college fairs are being strategic about their plans to represent their institutions during the online event(s) to ensure maximum success. Hernandez noted the breadth of ways to connect virtually. “We will be staffing the virtual fairs with multiple members from our admission team,” said Hernandez. “We are working in conjunction with our marketing and communications team to maximize our virtual presence. We want to utilize this opportunity to help students understand the scope of MSU. We will utilize pre-recorded content and live sessions to enhance the experience for those visiting us.”
“We began doing virtual events with high schools and communities in the last two to three years, whether to reach international students, or rural and other hard-to-reach areas within the United States,” explained Jim Rawlins, director of admissions and assistant vice president of enrollment management at the University of Oregon. “Due to the pandemic, our experience with them over this past half-year has given us added perspective. …We will be reviewing the outcomes of these events next year, not only to determine their effectiveness, but to see if it helps us reach students we have missed in the past.”
Increasing engagement with prospective students is also a priority for many institutions participating in the virtual college fairs. “We definitely plan to reach out to all of our current prospects to let them know we’ll be attending certain virtual fairs and to look for us,” said Drew Griffin, assistant vice provost for admissions and financial aid at the University of Central Missouri. “During the fairs, our main call to action will be to visit, whether virtually or in-person. With so many schools attending the fairs, we want to drive the conversation deeper and engage with students on a more personal level, which we feel we can do during a campus visit or through a virtual admission representative consultation.”
Blakley said the benefits are widespread, as the fairs can now reach students for whom distance may have been a barrier and colleges are saving money as budgets tighten. “Bringing the college fair into a student’s home eliminates transportation as a barrier and makes it extremely cost-effective for colleges and universities to participate by eliminating travel expenses. It’s a win-win!” he said. “It’s especially important during the pandemic, given that [virtual college fairs] supports social distancing and will not contribute to the spread of COVID-19.”
In-person college fairs are all about connecting prospective students with colleges that might be a good fit for them and to better explore their college options. For virtual, that goal is the same. “We will assess the programs quantitatively by the number of students we are able to interact with and how they progress through our recruitment funnel. We expect to engage with good students and have their interest grow in UT–Austin,” said Blakley.
Hernandez said success of the fair will also be measured as students move through the recruitment funnel. “We can assess the success of these virtual college fairs by seeing the interaction we have with prospective students and families not only during the fair but also after while we continue to follow up with them,” she said. “We plan to follow up with our guests within 24 hours (if not sooner) to provide great customer service in a timely and efficient manner. It is our hope to also see students who we may not have seen in the past due to access.”
To measure the success of the virtual fair after the event, Griffin said that his staff looks at the number of students they interacted with but also the quality of the conversations. At other virtual fairs in the past, he noticed some differences from in-person fairs. “To be honest, we did not see the same ROI as we have from face-to-face fairs. At in-person fairs, we tend to see more students, which helps drive our top of funnel. But virtually, we had more questions and strong conversations. So, really it is a question of quantity versus quality,” he said.
Griffin said he and his team are optimistic that the NACAC virtual fairs will yield a great number of prospective students to introduce to the university. “The major purpose of college fairs is to help drive top-of-funnel activity,” he said. “With the dip in the availability of names to purchase from national testing agencies, it will be nice to recoup some prospects/inquiries to help drive application campaigns. It’s difficult to put a specific number on a goal because this is vastly different from previous years and we have no prior event data to compare it to, but we know it will take many different strategies and opportunities to bring in the Fall 2021 class.”
Elena Loveland (formerly Elaina Loveland) has been a writer and editor covering higher education and college admission since 1999 and is the author of Creative Colleges: Finding the Best Programs for Aspiring Artists, Designers, Dancers, Musicians, Writers, and More.
For more information about NACAC Virtual College Fairs, visit nacacfairs.org/virtual.