Research Can Help Cut Through COVID Uncertainty (updated July 13, 2020)

As we watch colleges, universities, and schools struggle with decision-making around the fall, one fact looms large: there is an unprecedented level of uncertainty that, for many, is paralyzing.

Some of this is completely outside everyone’s control: Will the infection rate surge again? Will there be public health directives that affect campuses? Will there be travel restrictions? Can international students even get a visa?

But another significant portion is because all of our well-constructed planning models are off. What does it mean if a student participates in a virtual campus visit? Do enrollment deposits mean fall matriculants? And what’s going on with fundraising, anyway? All of our formulas for estimating yield, financial aid needs, or annual giving are completely blown out of the water in the midst of the pandemic.

One thing that can help with the second category of uncertainty is to gather fresh data. Many schools are doing just that: surveying students about their online experience, parents about their views on cost and value, faculty and staff about their experiences pivoting online and the support they need to deliver instruction and services in the fall. While these data can’t completely lift the mist, they might help you get out of the “dense fog” you’ve been driving through, to quote a recent Chronicle article.

As we advise campus leaders across the country, here are some key questions we think you should be asking:

  • What was the experience of our students (and for K-12 schools, their parents) with online learning this spring, and how can we make this better going forward?
  • What are the expectations of new and returning students for their campus experience in the fall, and how will this affect their decision to show up, defer, or transfer?
  • How do these questions inform their perception of value, and how should this affect our decisions about pricing?
  • What was the experience of our faculty and staff during the spring, and what additional support will they need to be able to deliver the experience we believe will be necessary to keep students engaged in the fall?
  • How are our major donors thinking about philanthropy in this environment, and how can we appeal to them effectively and sensitively?

If you’ve ever undertaken serious constituent research, you know that it can be costly and time-consuming. However, the firms we often partner with for research know that campuses need information quickly, and they can’t afford to spend a lot given the financial pressures they are all facing. Art & Science Group, one partner we admire for the quality of their work and the rigor of their methodology, has pivoted to offer COVID-related research that can be done in as little as 3 weeks and is priced at one-fifth of what such research usually costs.

There are many good firms that do market research in the higher ed space, and they each have their strengths and specialties. One good way to assess them is to see what research they have published in this space recently. (See below for a list of recent research studies and resources we have tracked about enrollment and student decision-making.) Extra bonus: you may find that some of your questions about market decision factors are informed by existing national studies and data sets.

However, each institution has unique factors, and that is why we strongly recommend conducting your own institution-specific research as well. Peterson Rudgers Group can help you design and/or implement your local data-gathering efforts as a complement to publicly available research.

There are also some good, shared resources for conducting institution-specific research. The Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium created a sample survey for its members, while Educause developed a research kit. You may have campus capacity among your faculty or in your Institutional Research office. When I was an administrator at University of Chicago and University of Michigan, the IR people were some of my best friends!

Advancement research is a bit different in character. There also are firms that specialize in prospect research, but here we would recommend keeping it simple and focused. Individual interviews with 20-25 of your top donors can tell you a lot about how their thinking may have shifted.

If you decide to do your own survey research, you might find this recent article about surveying students useful. A few of their expert tips:

  • Survey students early and often – and use the results to inform action as quickly as possible
  • Keep surveys short and easy to complete in 5-10 minutes
  • Optimize surveys for mobile devices and students with disabilities
  • Use a mix of closed- and open-ended questions to capture the breadth of experiences
  • Communicate that their feedback will inform actual decisions and improvements

And one final piece of advice I would offer from my graduate studies: my market research professor drilled into my head that you should only ask questions where the answer will influence a decision or change you will make. If it’s just “nice to know,” shelve it. Everyone has limited time and attention, so only ask if you really need the information.

Resources and recent research:

Strada: Public Viewpoint, July 15, 2020

Tyton Partners: Time For Class COVID-19 Edition Part 1, July 7, 2020

National Bureau of Economic Research: The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Experiences and Expectations: Evidence from a Survey, June 2020

Art & Science Group: StudentPOLL: The Impact of COVID-19 on the College Application Process for the High School Class of 2021, June 2020

Digital Promise: Suddenly Online: A National Survey of Undergraduates During the COVID-19 Pandemic, June 2020

College Pulse: COVID-19 On Campus: The Future of Learning, June 2020

National Student Clearinghouse: How Was College Enrollment Impacted by Shutdowns and Online-Only Classes Amid COVID-19?, June 30, 2020

Education Dive: Survey: How should financial aid offices communicate with students during the pandemic?, June 26, 2020

Ithaka S+R: Student Experiences During the Pandemic Pivot, June 25, 2020

University Business: Survey: Are students ready to return to campus in the fall? Yes, but with caveats, June 25, 2020

EAB: Survey: What will social distancing look like for students at colleges and universities this fall?, June 23, 2020

Inside Higher Ed: Survey: 90% of Students Will Return to Research Universities , June 18, 2020

University Business: What do students think of online learning? 2 surveys shed some light, June 18, 2020

Junior Achievement USA: Class of 2020 Survey: Half of Graduating Seniors Change Plans for after High School Due to COVID-19

Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium: Will Students Come Back? Undergraduate Students’ Plans to Re-Enroll in Fall 2020

Strada: Public Viewpoint, May 20, 2020

Education Dive: How to survey college students about the shift online, May 12, 2020

EDUCAUSE: DIY Survey Kit: Evaluating the 2020 Spring Semester

Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium: COVID-19 Institutional Response Student Survey

Inside Higher Ed: The student view of this spring’s shift to remote learning, May 20, 2020 (research by Eric D. Loepp, University of Wisconsin Whitewater) Student Voices – The Path to Fall 2020, May 20, 2020

Carnegie Dartlett: Senior Fall Decision: The After-May 1st COVID-19 Study, May 14, 2020

Strada: COVID-19 Work and Education Survey, May 14, 2020

College Reaction: As colleges mull re-opening, majority of students ready to return, May 13, 2020

Reup Education: COVID-19 Stopout Student Survey: Key Insights, May 12, 2020

Newsweek: 32 percent of students say they won’t go to college next year if classes are online only, May 11, 2020 (National Association of High School Scholars survey)

National College Attainment Network: New Data: Nearly 250,000 Fewer Low-Income FAFSA Renewals This Cycle Nationally, May 6, 2020

Top Hat: Results from COVID-19 Student Survey about Online Learning, May 1, 2020

Art & Science Group: How COVID-19 continues to influence the choice of college-going students, April 2020

AACRAO: Undergraduate Enrollment Indicators, Impact on Admissions Practice and Fall Course Delivery, April 2020

Simpson Scarborough: Higher Ed and COVID-19: National Student Survey, April 2020

Chronicle of Higher Education: Rick Hesel: What Prospective Freshmen Think About the Fall, April 30, 2020

One Class: 75% of College Students Unhappy With Quality of eLearning During Covid-19, April 1, 2020

SurveyMonkey: Poll: distance learning for college students during the coronavirus outbreak, March 30, 2020 Impact of Coronavirus on Students’ Academic Progress and College Plans, March 25, 2020

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