Clarity and consistency key as colleges share fall plans, experts say

Each week, nearly a thousand faculty, staff, students, parents and alumni join Spelman College President Mary Schmidt Campbell for a virtual town hall where she updates them on the fast-moving events around the pandemic, takes their questions and addresses their concerns. Because the number of attendees is capped, the videos are later posted online

Schmidt Campbell launched the series on April 1, after the historically Black college closed its Atlanta campus. Since then, the town halls have covered topics ranging from online instruction and the distribution of emergency aid to housing and refund policies. Spelman augmented the town halls with text messages, emails, phone calls and website updates. 

That outreach may seem like overkill, but communication experts say that in this climate of uncertainty, the less is more axiom doesn’t apply.

“It was really important to allow open communications, not just for our prospective students but for our returning students, as well,” said Ingrid Hayes, Spelman’s vice president for enrollment management. “We’ve been working in a very intentional way to have candid conversations campuswide about our plans for the fall and to make sure our newest members of the community are informed.”     

While the California State University, the country’s largest university system, announced plans in mid-May for a mostly online semester, the vast majority of students nationwide remain in limbo about their fall terms. This continued uncertainty, experts say, is why colleges and universities need a comprehensive communication strategy.   

Establishing a pattern of informative and candid communications can help, said Philip Hauserman, vice president of crisis communications at The Castle Group. “Whether it’s every two weeks, or every Monday, or every third Thursday, consistency is important to manage expectations,” he said. “Under-communicating will lead to speculation, rumor and risk, whereas overcommunicating can unnecessarily escalate concern or lead to increased scrutiny.” 

The art of reassuring

One survey taken early in the pandemic suggested four-year colleges could lose as much as 20% of their freshman enrollment this fall. Madeleine Rhyneer, dean of enrollment management at consulting firm EAB, believes that number is too high. The more than 250 colleges her firm works with haven’t seen enrollment decrease significantly and don’t expect to this fall. She acknowledges that much depends on what happens with the virus this fall, however, and she advises institutions to be vigilant about dispersing information.

“There needs to be a lot more reassuring going on,” Rhyneer said. “Reassurance that you have a plan, and then reassurance about what the plan actually is and how it’s going to work.” 

Sydney Scott, who will be a junior at Brown University this fall, feels the university could do a better job communicating with its students. “We hear from the president a little more than once a month, but it’s not been super consistent and a lot of times they don’t really have that much information to give us.”

Brown has said it expects to finalize fall plans by mid-July. In addition to preparing for the possibility of a fully remote fall semester, the university is also considering dividing the 2020-2021 academic year into three semesters to reduce population density. Scott, a member of the university’s varsity track team, is pondering what all this means for athletics. 

“Track is a huge part of my college experience,” she said, adding that she would consider taking a gap year if sports couldn’t continue. (The NCAA extended eligibility for student-athletes in spring sports.)

Since the University of California, Berkeley, closed its campus and moved to remote learning in March, Alec Lumsden, an incoming junior, said he has received communications from the university’s chancellor at least once a week, but it was nearly three months until he had specifics about the fall semester. When they finally arrived, in a June 17 email, Lumsden found it disappointing. 

“We have created a set of options for you,” wrote Chancellor Carol Crist. “You and your family will need to decide which course of action is right for you based on your circumstances, your preferences, your goals, and your judgment of the risk.”

The university is not requiring students return to campus, and Christ’s email states that “almost all” academic offerings will be accessible remotely. Lumsden, who would live off-campus, doesn’t see the point of leaving his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, for Berkeley, California, only to take classes online. But he’s frustrated the school is leaving the choice largely to him, as he enjoys Berkeley and would prefer to be there.  

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m being impatient trying to rush back when I could just wait out the COVID pandemic,” Lumsden said. He might take a gap year instead, he added, saying online instruction “just doesn’t have the same value” as in-person classes.  

In an email to Education Dive, a UC Berkeley spokesperson said the university disperses information to students through emails, social media posts and a dedicated website. The outreach includes interviews with campus leaders and Q&A sessions, they said. 

A spokesperson from Brown University said in an email that the university expects to share its plans for the upcoming academic year by mid-July at the latest. They referred to a website of updates on the university’s response to the crisis.

Making sure students stay recruited

Even if they take time off, Scott and Lumsden say they’ll return to their same institutions. But colleges also have to be concerned about losing students, especially from their incoming freshman class. Spelman rolled out new incentives and increased communications to keep its 660 incoming students in the fold. That includes free professional development courses, a faculty chat series and informational videos about what they can expect when they arrive and after graduation. 

Of that group, 40 students have submitted a deposit but haven’t made a final decision. “Spelman is working to reaffirm their decision,” Hayes said. “We feel like we’re building even stronger ties to this incoming class.”

More than 40 million unemployment claims have been filed since the pandemic began, prompting many schools to reassess their students’ financial status. Hayes said a number of Spelman’s new and returning students have filed aid appeals that are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

But the college finds itself in a position it couldn’t have imagined even a month ago. Thanks to a $40 million gift from philanthropist Patty Quillin and her husband, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Spelman can provide full four-year scholarships to 200 first-year students over the next 10 years.

The show-me stage

The vast majority of incoming first-year and returning students at Brown said in a recent survey that they would return to campus if the university reopened and brought students back on the normal schedule — a scenario the university admitted was “optimistic.” Far fewer said they would complete the term if it had to be conducted remotely. 

What shape the fall will take is uncertain, but already schools are canceling athletics seasons, and the share planning to reopen mostly or entirely in-person is shrinking, according to one count.

Hauserman said the next wave of communication should explain the execution. That includes the processes for factors such as testing, social distancing, temperature screening, hygiene and contact tracing. Some schools are providing visual examples of what the classroom and campus environment will look like with social distancing features incorporated. 

“It’s to help manage student expectations, especially (for) returning students, that things are not going to be the same,” he said.

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