COVID-19 has completely transformed student recruitment overnight. When once universities would recruit new students with physical events and activities, outreach for upcoming semesters has shifted entirely online. Schools are now hosting online events such as virtual student fairs and Zoom information sessions while increasing the use of mediums such as video to communicate with potential students.
For business schools, a similar impact has been felt with many MBA candidates also experiencing the sudden change from on-campus delivery to online. In this article, we discuss how business schools can pivot to best mitigate the impact of the pandemic on this year’s MBA recruitment, while also gearing up for the next generation of students.
The impact of COVID-19 on higher education student recruitment
In 2019, 419 American colleges reported availability for new students after the May 1 admissions deadline. This year, 729 colleges and universities reported availability, the highest number of leftover places listed in recent years. For business schools, the pandemic has also paved the path for a delay in final application deadlines, with schools such as The University of Virginia's Darden School of Business pushing back final deadlines as far as July 15.
In a recent survey of college presidents, 86% rated fall and summer program enrollment as one of their most pressing issues. 78% of presidents indicated on a four-point scale that they were “strongly concerned” about fall enrollments.
A survey by the MBA Career Services and Employer Alliance (MBA CSEA) found that two-thirds of their respondents from 118 business schools had "at least one job offer rescinded" following COVID-19, with many others given delayed starting dates. With job market security at recession level lows, many graduates are facing an uncertain future.
However, for many considering an MBA, the current period of economic disruption may offer an opportunity for those recently unemployed or wanting to upskill and change careers. Also, with tech companies such as Google and banks continuing to steadily hire MBA graduates, the benefit of having an MBA will continue long after the pandemic.
Agile business schools benefit from online capabilities during the pandemic
With COVID-19 putting much of the work into a relative lockdown, most MBA programs that weren’t already delivered online moved quickly to digital delivery as a way to provide students with a way to continue study despite the pandemic. Schools such as EGADE Business School in Mexico were among the first to make the switch back in March, switching over 2,00 students to online study almost overnight. Doing so enabled them to keep their students in classes with minimal downtime experienced. Demonstrating such agility, and with robust tech infrastructure in place, schools such as EGADE have been able to minimize the impact of the pandemic on their institution and their students in a highly effective manner.
Online learning vs. online education
As the switch to online teaching occurred rapidly, this created a steep learning curve for many educators not used to full-time online teaching. According to a survey by OneClass, 75% of university student respondents said they didn’t think they had received a quality learning experience when receiving online instruction after the pandemic. For many students, the transition from the classroom to online did not necessarily translate into a quality learning experience.
While online teaching may have occurred as a necessity, the next challenge for business schools will be improving delivery via virtual classrooms as physical restrictions continue over the next few months, and potentially still by the start of the upcoming academic year. Those who will adapt the best are already evaluating how to best improve delivery in the coming months and are focusing on boosting student engagement online.
Online MBAs are booming
For business schools with already established online MBAs and other programs, the pandemic period has seen a marked increase in applications. In Australia, The University of New South Wales’ top-ranked MBAX program has received a substantial increase in interest with 60% more applications than at the same time in 2019. The MBAx is designed to deliver a world-class online learning experience and attracts professionals looking for a high-quality education experience with the added flexibility of studying online. This kind of flexibility is becoming more important than ever, not just in the current coronavirus climate but also in the post-COVID 19 world, for professionals wanting to complete modular learning experiences to meet their specific needs and gain credible qualifications.
However, the question remains: Will the uptake of online MBA degrees increase well past the coronavirus pandemic? As mentioned earlier, economic downturns have previously seen a considerable increase in applicants for full-time courses, as professionals look to take an MBA as an effective way to gain a promotion or change to a different career. With online MBAs on offer, professionals have the added benefit of not needing to take a break from work altogether to complete their studies.
While the online MBA may be attractive for some, there are plenty of opportunities now for business schools to work hard at future-proofing their MBAs while simultaneously dealing with the pandemic. How? By readying themselves for their next biggest demographic, Generation Z, or the most digitally savvy generation to date who thrives in an online environment.
The rise of Generation Z & multi-generational communication strategies
Millennials have long been the primary demographic for MBA marketing. However, for those marketing business schools this will soon change as Generation Z matures. Administrators must be aware of meeting the needs of both demographics. “Zoom fatigue” from so many work meetings conducted from home over an extended period may risk dampening millennials’ willingness to use their laptops for executive education sessions. However, while mature students may be more orientated towards in-class study, digital environments are a more natural fit for Generation Z. As this demographic begins to seek MBA study, it may be quite a fitting option for their needs. If business schools are to continue or commence developing their online education infrastructure post-pandemic, they are likely to benefit significantly in the future as new generations emerge.
Differentiating Your Business School in 2020 & Beyond
In an industry filled with strong competition, business schools must work hard to set themselves apart from the rest. Knowing how to do that can be a challenge, and selling the idea of a unique student experience is often key to success.
Seek student feedback & anticipate student needs
The best way to know how to differentiate yourself from the rest is to understand what your students want the most. Tools like Google Forms, AirTable and SurveyMonkey make it easy to obtain student feedback. The next step is to let students know that you have heard their concerns and to work on using them to better your programs. What may have worked for years may not work any longer, especially as demographics begin to change, so make sure you are listening and ready for change.
Find that "special something" that makes your MBA stand out
By leaning into what your potential students are interested in, this information can be useful to help evaluate what sets your MBA apart from others and what you can communicate to draw more students in. Perhaps it is your teaching staff, your alumni network or even type of specialisations on offer, there are many ways you can find that "special something" to attract more students to your programs and stand out from the competition.
Use experiential methods to recruit prospective students
There is no better way to promote your MBA than give potential students the opportunity to see what it would be like to be a student in your classroom. Considering offering "student for a day" events or offer the chance to attend a class. By allowing students to "test-drive" your MBA, you may be able to communicate a number of valuable traits which aren't easily communicated within a course catalogue.
Use learnings from the pandemic to inspire your MBA development
While many changes made as a result of the pandemic were a result of necessity, there may be some that can help improve your MBA for the future. By evaluating how your business school has handed the situation and analysing key learnings, you may be able to use this data to help form your plans for the future. Some elements may be worth keeping once things return to normal, such as virtual student events or online information sessions. Did you communicate frequently with video for recruitment before COVID-19? If not, the switch to digital may have taught recruitment teams a lot about the power of video.
Go beyond learning
While learning is the reason students are enrolled in your programs, the additional offerings are what can set your program apart. Prospective students appreciate the addition of inclusions like counselling, alumni networking events, 1:1 academic support, and workshops to build skills such as negotiation.
Above all, universities should seek to put students first. Now is the time for administrators to review rules and processes to ensure they benefit students now and into the future. While putting students first will not solve all recruitment challenges, it is a step in the right direction, which will only prove beneficial during this uncertain time.