November 12, 2020
For colleges and universities, most of the buzz around this fall’s numbers focuses on the incoming class and how to attract and convert them without the usual array of tactics, conversations and visits. There’s no doubt that this task will require more creativity and focus than normal, but it’s not the only challenge that higher education is facing for the coming semester.
College is going to look different for everyone, no matter if your campus continues with remote learning, opens with in-person classes or explores some hybrid of the two. You need to think about what to do to retain students who have already spent a year or two on campus.
Whether you’re a flagship public institution with game-day tailgates or a bustling metropolitan campus with scores of student organizations or a quiet rural college where everyone knows everyone else, you’re the place that your students decided “felt like home.”
You’ve done the work of moving the academic experience online. Now is the time to focus on the student experience, the traditions, the celebrations, the milestone moments. It’s easy to dismiss these as secondary, but we know that interactions with peers can have a powerful effect on student retention and degree completion.
What can you do to help your students stay connected to the communities they’ve built on your campus? How can you look for new ways to create connections and add value?
Recreate What’s Established
It’s time to paint a new picture. If students don’t or can’t return to campus, you need to bring the experiences they know and love to them virtually.
- Campus TraditionsAt Texas A&M University, Aggie Muster is a tradition that commemorates the lives of students and alumni who have died over the last year. At the ceremony, their names are read in the “Roll Call for the Absent.” Attendees light candles, and friends and families of the deceased answer “here” when the names of their loved ones are spoken. This year, Texas A&M created a virtual experience to celebrate this treasured tradition. During live broadcasts, members of the Aggie community could tune in to any Muster ceremony around the world. Using a sign-in option, they could chat with one another and say “here” virtually during the roll call. The events also included a gallery for posting photos and memories of beloved Aggies who have passed on.
- The ArtsWe look to the arts for inspiration, entertainment and meaning. In April, the Juilliard School responded to the state of the world as only Juilliard could: with a collaborative rendition of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero. The nine-minute performance — featuring students, faculty and alumni scattered around the globe — was choreographed, rehearsed, recorded and edited remotely. Participants were challenged to rethink their creative ties as they worked online in groups, and Bolero Juilliard was born. The project brought together dancers, instrumentalists, vocalists and actors in a stunning example of collaboration, at a time when being physically together was impossible.
- Recreation and WellnessPersonal trainers from the University of South Carolina are posting at-home workouts on Instagram TV and Stories. The workouts require minimal equipment and are led by college student trainers in their living rooms and basements. Not only are students missing their campus activities and traditions, but they’re also still in need of other crucial campus resources. Dartmouth College is offering virtual counseling, wellness checks and meditation to its students, promoting these resources via Instagram Stories with a swipe-up link.
- Clubs and OrganizationsMany students learn about campus clubs and organizations through an involvement fair during orientation. To rethink this event in the current context, institutions are looking into virtual career fair platforms, hoping to create an interactive experience that students can participate in from a distance. The University of New Orleans has developed BuzzFeed-style quizzes to help students narrow down their options from more than 150 campus organizations. With a few of these clubs in mind, students can virtually attend one of three live involvement fairs, or schedule a one-on-one advising session with student involvement staff.
Create Something New
Our current circumstances also offer a unique opportunity: inventing completely new ways to build community and engage with your student body.
- Tapping LeadersPresidents who are used to spending time with students in the dining hall, at athletic events and in walks across campus are looking for new ways to connect with their communities. At Arcadia University, President Ajay Nair is posting videos of himself cooking to share a glimpse into his cultural heritage and personal life. Brigham Young University has turned to campus influencers to share messages of hope and inspiration on Instagram TV, promoting the feeling that the university is talking with its communities and not just at them.
- Fostering ConnectionOn its social media channels, Indiana University has come up with new content to help its campus community feel connected across physical distances. Students can use newly developed templatesto share their favorite classes, memories and GIFs that remind them of unique campus moments. The templates are both shared on Instagram and saved to IU’s Pinterest channel.
- Bringing Campus to YouHamilton College recently hosted a livestreamed drone tour of campus, where viewers could request locations to fly over and receive a nice reminder of home.
It’s time to take stock of what makes your campus special. Think of the traditions, campus experiences and programs that make you who you are. Then ask yourself how you can bring these to life in a new way. Perhaps there is something you’ve never tried before that could generate a sense of community.
This is certainly a grand challenge for colleges and universities, but it might also be your greatest opportunity.