by KAITLIN SMYTH
With all admissions events online, UMW has faced challenges attracting potential students. In response to a decrease in applications during the COVID-19 pandemic, UMW has decided to partner with Capture Higher Ed, a marketing company that helps colleges and universities to appeal to students.
According to their website, Capture Higher Ed uses data scientists to analyze engagement on university websites. They make suggestions to universities about how to tailor their website to their audience by providing information about website viewers to the universities.
“Our contract with Capture is $52,000 per year,” said Melissa Yakabouski, director of Undergraduate Admissions. “We have reallocated funds that would normally have been spent on Admissions recruitment travel or in person campus events to this endeavor. As with all of our activities, we will assess the return on our investment in this tool to determine if we will continue to use it.”
High school seniors have missed traditional college preparation opportunities due to COVID regulations.
“They [seniors] haven’t had the opportunity in their high schools to drop in on their counselor and ask questions about colleges or the Common Application. They not only missed traditions of senior year, but for the most part have not had many if any opportunities to engage with colleges in person. They haven’t had the chance to get the vibe of Campus Walk. They haven’t attended open houses or toured campus, seen residence hall rooms, experienced the HCC or the UC,” she said.
UMW Admissions has had to significantly change its events in order to adapt to a virtual setting.
“Admissions events are entirely virtual,” said Yakabouski. “Normally, in March we would host Destination UMW on campus with more than 300 students plus their parents, where we would nearly fill Dodd Auditorium. We’d do it again in April with a second similar crowd. Right now we are thrilled to have 250 admitted students registered for virtual Destination UMW on March 20.”
The switch to online admissions events has made it harder to interact with potential students, according to Yakabouski.
“You may think virtual would allow us to expand our reach for more students, and in some ways, it has. We have seen more international students join a virtual open house,” she said. “However, virtual events are far easier to dismiss, to say ‘I’ll just catch the next one’ rather than show up for a planned trip to campus. Zoom fatigue is real. Attendance for events like our fall open houses virtually has been lower than our fall in-person events would have been. This seems to be a trend for many of our peer universities as well.
While there are chances for potential students to visit the campus in person, they are limited.
“We have had the opportunity to welcome guests on a limited basis to campus under COVID social distancing restrictions through the year. We are heading into spring breaks for high school students, so we may see more visitors to campus in March and April. Tours are of campus, not inside buildings. We are doing our best to bring campus to life in other ways through video, live hosted video tours and virtual sessions,” Yakabouski said.
UMW, like many other colleges and universities, has experienced a decrease in applications, but a certain few Virginia schools have actually seen an increase in applications.
“Many schools, UMW included, have seen a decrease in applications this year. In Virginia, it’s been reported the UVA, VT, and W&M are dramatically up. It’s no coincidence that all three have waived test scores requirements this year. Most of the remaining public institutions in VA are in a similar situation to UMW with decreased application numbers,” she said.
There are a variety of different reasons for the decrease in applications at many schools.
“There are some students who simply did not engage with the admission process for fall 2021, choosing to wait out the pandemic’s impact on a traditional college experience,” said Yakabouski. “Additionally, underrepresented populations in college are coming late to this process. First-generation, diverse students and socioeconomically challenged families are not as engaged. FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) filing is also down across the country, including Virginia.”
UMW partnered with Capture Higher Ed to engage interested students virtually.
“Our website is a huge virtual recruitment tool, but it was passive,” said Yakabouski. “Prospective students certainly use it to find information, but prior to our partnership with Capture, we would never know about them unless they decided to complete a form and let us know. It also allows us to better understand the needs and interests of our admitted students based on their behavior on our website, so we can share information in a more targeted, strategic way.”
Prior to the pandemic, athletic teams reached out to potential student-athletes where they had scheduled a tour of campus. Freshman Kelly Young was one of the many student-athletes that was invited to tour UMW prior to COVID-19 and later on experienced the virtual admission process.
“I decided to go to UMW because when I went on my visit the track and field cross country team was very welcoming,” said Young. “My transition was a little bit easier because I had the opportunity to have a normal visit before the pandemic.”
Despite having a virtual orientation, Young still enjoyed the opportunity to meet with other eagles.
“Something that was really helpful during my virtual orientation was that we went into the breakout room and had the opportunity to meet our orientation leader as well as other rising freshmen,” said Young.
Freshman Kaitlin Saal received the UMW Washington Scholarship. For Saal, this scholarship was a big incentive to choose UMW over other schools, even during the pandemic.
“My scholarship definitely helped ease the financial load of school off of my parents. I didn’t qualify for much financial aid. We still can’t afford to put both my brother and me through college and hopefully med school so I was definitely happy to be able to lessen the burden for them,” said Saal.
Through Capture Higher Ed, UMW is attempting to adapt to the constraints of the pandemic.
“The definition of insanity is doing the same things and expecting different results,” said Yakabouski. “We cannot recruit the same way. This [Capture] is a different tool and approach.”
UMW has had to amend the way that they conduct admissions and, despite many challenges, has made significant strides in altering their admission events in hopes of overcoming the challenges set forth by the pandemic.