Across the country, significant numbers of high school students and
family members are once again visiting colleges. This is a world away
from March 2020 when Jaharra Anglin Stubbs, a high school junior, was
developing her college application list.
“I was planning to tour colleges in Washington, DC, during spring
break of last year, then the pandemic happened,” recalled Stubbs, who is
from Yonkers, New York.
In Stubb’s case, there was no strolling across campus quads following
backward-stepping guides, yearning for gut feelings on whether a
college was the right fit. “We had to work around the pandemic,” she
… VIRTUAL RECRUITMENT WILL HAVE LONG-LASTING STAYING POWER AS A SUPPLEMENT TO IN-PERSON RECRUITMENT.
She spent hours logging onto virtual events, attending virtual
college fairs, and binge-watching virtual college tour videos to refine
and finalize her college application list. In order to make her final
college selection, she recalled, “I paid attention to all of the
[virtual] admitted student activities, simulated classes,
meet-and-greets, and information sessions.”
In April 2021, Stubbs committed, sight-unseen, to Colgate University
(NY), one among a number of schools that made her strong financial aid
offers. The staff from the school’s admission office “went above and
beyond in reaching out to me,” Stubbs said. The positive virtual
interactions were a factor that contributed to her selection.
Her plan is to visit Colgate in the early summer with her mom and
aunt. With the pandemic receding, all three are comfortable staying in a
hotel and interacting with others while on campus. “I know it will be
the right place for me,” she declared.
As the pandemic subsides in the United States and parts of the
country edge toward normalcy, NACAC professionals believe that the
virtual recruitment resources that Stubbs leaned upon and that colleges
invested much effort in developing will not vanish. They say that
virtual recruitment will have long-lasting staying power as a supplement
to in-person recruitment.
“Pre-pandemic, every college did not have a uniform and robust set of
online options. The pandemic changed that,” observed Julio Mata,
director of college counseling at the Francis Parker School (CA). It was
not until the pandemic that ways of learning virtually about colleges
really got a proverbial shot in the arm, even though there have always
been some students who have made college selections without the benefit
of visiting, he said.
At Syracuse University (NY), Jonathan J. Hoster, an undergraduate
recruitment specialist for the college of engineering and computer
science, collaborated with in-house communication professionals to
develop a series of video tours highlighting the school’s high-tech
laboratories. The videos began as pandemic patches to replicate the
in-person “wow factor” of the school’s student machine shop, flight
simulator, and engineering workshops. But now, Hoster sees the lab tour
videos as more or less permanent elements of his school’s enrollment
marketing toolkit, expected to last beyond the pandemic.
The admission office at Santa Clara University (CA) had aspired to
develop additional video content for its website prior to the COVID-19
crisis, according to Lorenzo Gamboa, senior associate director of
admissions. “The pandemic expedited that. We had to mobilize. Instead of
going 20 miles per hour, we had to reach 60.”
On April 3, 2020, just a couple weeks after the California
stay-at-home order went into effect, the admission office released a
“Skateboarding Tour” video series. The videos follow four student
ambassadors jumping, ollieing, and longboarding around the SCU campus in
between introductions to academic programs. What could be called
“chillout” music plays in the background during slow motion camera
panning. The tone, to use Gamboa’s words, is “California casual.”
The video series was an instant hit. It now has 29,000 YouTube views
(and counting) and is the centerpiece of a robust VirtualSCU webpage.
Alongside the climbs in video production and viewership, interactive campus tours skyrocketed during the pandemic.
YouVisit, the popular platform for 360-degree and virtual reality
campus tours that was initially launched in 2010, saw a 228 percent
spike in traffic during March and April 2020, as compared to the same
period in 2019.
Gamboa remarked, “Our YouVisit tour caught traction during the pandemic, and overall, education technology solutions exploded.”
According to John Michaels, a spokesperson for EAB, YouVisit’s owner,
the number of institutions contracting YouVisit for tours grew from 460
to 630 institutions since the onset of the pandemic, an increase of
more than 36 percent.
Mark Tressler, the chief operating officer at Niche, a college and
school search website, has a hypothesis to explain the strong tailwinds
for flashy interactive virtual tours and amped-up virtual content,
including the solutions offered by Niche. He argues that admission
offices increasingly need to leverage top-notch web-based content to
generate prospective student leads now that SAT and ACT registration
cannot be relied upon to drive prospect generation. “The pandemic
accelerated the shift to a more digital college admission process,” he
In the emerging new normal, many college admission professionals
envision admission work being conducted in an increasingly hybrid
approach in which in-person recruitment is supplemented by virtual
events and strengthened virtual resources. Mata, describes this hybrid
future of admission as “both in-person and virtual.”
Many say that virtual events will continue post-pandemic not out of
necessity but because they offer a convenient and cost-effective way for
students and families to learn about schools. Plus, they are more
affordable for colleges to stage than sending admission officers around
the country with rental cars and rolling suitcases.
“I barely knew what Zoom was prior to the pandemic,” Hoster, of
Syracuse University, joked. “Going forward, I think that we are going to
be seeing more people on campus, but we’ll still want to have virtual
events. It makes us more accessible to people who might not have the
ability to hop on a plane to come visit for an event.”
Darryl W. Jones, senior associate director of admissions at
Gettysburg College (PA), recalled the past 16 months of event
programming as an evolution. “At first, the answer to everything was,
‘Let’s do it on Zoom,’ but, as time progressed, we switched from
reactive to proactive,” he explained, citing a number of ways in which
Gettysburg admission staff iterated their virtual opportunities.
One-on-one virtual consultations were offered to accepted students,
bringing a human touch and personal relationships into the virtual
Region-focused virtual events, such as West Coast Wednesday
Information Sessions, were launched to meet students’ and families’ time
zone preferences and to facilitate smaller forums. “We used several
different platforms for large and small events and a flexible schedule
to accommodate international and multiple time-zone events.”
Other campuses were also figuring out what worked and what did not in
virtual event programming. An early lesson at Miami University in Ohio
was that programs needed to be fast-moving, high-tempo, and Netflix-like
to grab and hold the attention of Zoom-fatigued audiences. According to
Bethany Perkins, assistant vice president and director of admissions,
the best virtual events are compact ones and incorporate student,
faculty, and alumni speakers.
“OUR STUDENTS ARE TIRED OF THE VIRTUAL WORLD. THEY’VE HAD ENOUGH. THEY WANT THE IN-PERSON OPPORTUNITIES.”
But the path to more successful events was far from effortless at
colleges and universities operating under the constant uncertainty of
the pandemic, including at Miami. “Our events weren’t honed over years
and months. In March 2020, we did not have any virtual events or most of
the videos that you see right now,” stated Perkins. “It was stressful
to experiment as much as we did and to bring the community along with
us. We felt it when only a few students showed up and a faculty member
was there. We felt it when the technology didn’t work. All of the
development required a Herculean effort.”
Many colleges are still not providing opportunities for in-person
visiting. For those that are—including Miami, Gettysburg, Syracuse, and
SCU—there are spikes in tour interest as of the early summer.
“Families have been cooped up in their homes for quite some time,” said Jones.
At the University of Minnesota, Miguel Ovies-Bocanegra, assistant
director of multicultural recruitment, describes “an influx of in-person
campus visit inquiries.”
This return to campus tours and in-person college recruitment
programming cannot come soon enough for the students and staff at the
community-based Baton Rouge Youth Coalition (BRYC), according to Chelsea
Werner, BRYC’s director of college counseling.
“Our students are tired of the virtual world. They’ve had enough.
They want the in-person opportunities,” said Werner, who added that her
underrepresented students sometimes lacked the sufficient computer
technology and internet bandwidth to access virtual college resources
The degree to which high schools will be open for visits by college
representatives in the fall and beyond is unknown, as is the degree to
which admission offices and professionals will be eager to send
representatives out on the road. Werner and Mata both reported receiving
calls from admission representatives to arrange in-person visits for
the fall and are making their visit plans, while others are proceeding
cautiously. Jones, of Gettysburg, said, “We won’t travel until it’s
absolutely safe to do so.” At Miami, Perkins remarked that her
intentions are “to visit fewer schools than pre-pandemic and to continue
Hoster, in particular, hoped “that there will remain a long-term
place for engaging with prospective students via virtual platforms,”
including via virtual college fairs. Gamboa fully concurred and, in
particular, imagines that virtual fairs will have a strong stickiness
post-pandemic, stressing that the continuation of virtual fairs is of
special importance for students in rural communities who otherwise have
limited access to in-person college fairs. Both Hoster and Gamboa were
involved in planning a NACAC Virtual STEM Fair in March 2021, and NACAC
will continue its signature college fairs in virtual mode this fall.
With so much still in flux around the transition to a “new normal” in
college admission, Werner argued that there is a big opportunity for
admission offices to rethink recruitment with equity in mind. “This is a
time for us to reimagine the admission landscape and work toward a more
equitable system. Admission offices have a unique opportunity ahead of
them,” she said, urging them to make the most of the moment.
Eric Neutuch is a freelance writer.
Use these tips to help rising juniors and seniors (and their
families) take full advantage of the emerging hybrid recruitment
Typically, the summer is when college admission offices plan their
fall visit schedules. This year, however, there's great uncertainty
about which high schools will allow visits by college representatives
and which COVID restrictions will still be in place.
As a service to the field, NACAC asked secondary schools to answer the following:
The initial responses are at nacacnet.org/highschoolvisits.
Check back frequently as responses from additional high schools
continue to come in.We hope this resource is helpful to college
admission offices in planning their fall visit schedules and assists
overall in connecting prospective students and colleges.