Although universities were at the forefront of some of the most proactive responses to the coronavirus - quick to vacate accommodation and move classes online, for example - the process was challenging, and some are understandably still working hard to put in place processes, guidance and to provide clear communications.
It's a complex picture, events are happening rapidly, each institution is adapting with their own response and student perceptions are in flux.
Thankfully, two studies have recently been released that shed light on students' current thinking during this period of unprecedented change. Read on to find out how students are reacting to the changes being proposed by universities, what students' plans are for the future, how institutions can help them in this challenging year, and what they want to hear from your marketing teams.
The Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on students preparing for university in 2020
PickleJar Communications, UK-based communications, social media strategy, and planning agency, spend a lot of time talking to prospective students about their motivations, experiences, how they make potentially life-changing decisions, and how their education fits into their wider lives.
Taking this empathetic approach, they set out to uncover insights into how students were coping with this new 'normal'.
Their research delved into what the pandemic has done to students' daily lives, their immediate plans, and to their long-term goals. The results make fascinating reading.
Their researchers identified 8 mindsets into which students fall. These mindsets describe their motivations for attending university and, consequently, how their reaction to the pandemic has affected their plans for the future. They provide a great framework for understanding students at this current time and you can read them in detail in the report here.
Students' motivations, emotions, and expectations in 2020
Their research team found that students' self-reported reactions to the change in their life have unsurprisingly been mostly negative. They're feeling stressed, anxious, and worried, resulting in a drop in motivation.
They also discovered that one of the biggest causes of students' emotional state is the feeling that they are missing out on opportunities that other year groups have taken for granted. This covers the personal and social - the long summer break, their leavers' ball or prom, not being in school for their final day, and the academic, the cathartic experience of sitting exams, or the chance to give their studies a final push for a better grade.
The team also heard that students are feeling abandoned or ignored by the universities they have applied to. They feel that the communications they receive - if they receive any at all - do not address their circumstances, or make no mention of the pandemic at all, perhaps in a bid to purely focus on the positive developments relating to the institution.
On a more positive note, students stated that they were still planning to attend university. They want to achieve their career goals, and they want to go through the rite of passage that the university allows.
The majority were still keen to study in September, but they also have a lot of concerns about online learning or not being able to socialize in the way they would like.
But the possibility of a socially-distanced campus, or an online start in September, is not popular among those who want the entire university experience. For these prospective students, they want the experience they were hoping for and indeed expecting, and that others have had, and are willing to defer or change university to increase the chance they can have a “real” student lifestyle and full university experience.
Havas Education has also recently released a four-part report based on their research that tracks student perspectives following the coronavirus outbreak. The study surveyed 466 Gen-Zers aged 16-18 and casts further light on the student's current mindset. Here are the key findings.
The positive aspects identified in the Havas Education Research
- The current situation has helped students discover some unexpected benefits of digital distance learning such as the flexibility to work hard at times when it's most convenient, but also its limitations, such as not having as much day-to-day communications with connections and the potential for repetitiveness.
- Students did not expect universities to have all the answers but they responded particularly well to content demonstrating empathy and a concerted effort to respond to student concerns.
- Encouragingly, most students were considering going to university and the pandemic hasn't changed this.
- And the digital learning experience students are undergoing has made them more open to the possibility of digital learning elements in the future.
The concerns identified in the Havas Education Research
- For more anxious students, the situation is creating doubt about their next steps, and they are considering their options. Although universities are valued sources of information, they were rated lower as sources of support.
- Nearly half of the students surveyed stated that they are finding it difficult to keep up and understand the developments taking place.
- Whilst students are missing their friends and normal hobbies and life, worries about education and the future are most difficult for them with over half of the students surveyed feeling anxious.
- Similar to the PickleJar findings, the students surveyed were concerned about the social aspects they will be missing out on. They are hoping universities will help to provide alternative arrangements.
This is undoubtedly a difficult and confusing period for prospective students, and it's now crucial for universities to be in tune with, and sensitive towards how they're feeling, reflecting this in not only what is communicated but also how it's communicated.
The research we've outlined today is a useful starting point to understanding the different facets and needs of students during the pandemic. What follows are actionable insights from this research, that can support your decision making over these vital summer months.
7 key take away to inform your strategy and communications to support prospective students during the pandemic
- Students are particularly citing content that makes them feel reassured, especially where institutions are working on solutions and sharing them in a clear and open way.
- Students want to understand the pandemic adjustments that will affect them and have them clearly communicated. Keele University in the UK, for example, has been referenced for its clarity and useful roadmap.
- For students who have attended virtual events, they are most appreciative of the events that provide a rich blend of on-demand content and live interaction. Two hours seems to be the optimum duration, provided there is a range of engaging content and interactions at that time.
- A virtual start to term could mean that making friends is a very different experience. Student onboarding needs particular consideration to ensure that social connections still happen, albeit in a partially virtual setting.
- Institutions should define the implications for students on their higher education journey and how the long term impact on their career can be minimized.
- Students cite communications that involve real people as those that are most effective at making them feel supported. This includes email communications with university staff, online discussions with other students, and even live Q&As with senior university representatives.
- Parents and other family members have become even more of an influence on students' decisions than they normally would be, perhaps partly due to the enforced proximity of lockdown. Students are also forging connections with supportive teachers at their schools, who are helping them find ways to stay motivated.