November 18, 2021

How Virtual Events Level the Playing Field for College Access

by

Chris Langone

As prospective students and their families were forced to do all of their college search research online, there was a clear need to help connect students with their future colleges and universities. This need forced colleges, universities, and community colleges to rethink their approach to interacting with prospective students and their families.

2020 will be remembered as the year that higher education changed forever. In March 2020, colleges, universities, students, and families had to learn how to Zoom for everything, navigate unreliable WiFi connections, lean on cellular service, and prospective college students now had to find their future college of choice from their kitchen tables. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center recently reported that undergraduate enrollment is down 5.9% and enrollment at community colleges is down 11.3%. COVID-19 has exasperated an already critical issue - equitable access to higher education for many communities across the United States. 


As prospective students and their families were forced to do all of their college search research online, there was a clear need to help connect students with their future colleges and universities. This need forced colleges, universities, and community colleges to rethink their approach to interacting with prospective students and their families. 


By needing to now create engagement with students and families virtually, colleges and universities were forced to create unique virtual experiences that allowed prospective students to learn about their campus without actually visiting it. These experiences included virtual campus tours, virtual information sessions, virtual student roundtable discussions, virtual college fairs, and more. VisitDays research shows that 85.5% of students who joined a virtual experience over the last year had an excellent time.


1. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s Regular Updates on Higher Education Enrollment,” April 29, 2021, https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed/

Over the last year, virtual experiences became the norm and the expectation for prospective college students and their families. As more colleges, universities, and organizations built virtual experiences, students and their families across socioeconomic statuses started to see the value of being able to engage with higher education institutions on their own time and as they saw fit. Put in another way, virtual admissions and recruitment experiences level the playing field for students in the college search process. 

With virtual events and virtual fairs, students across the nation are able to meet their future college of choice and have real conversations about their futures. Taking a look at household incomes, virtual events were able to drastically level the playing field for access to iterating with colleges and universities across income levels. For household income levels of $34,999 and lower, students were able to meet with more colleges and universities more easily. No longer did these students have to think about how to afford to visit campus. They were now able to join a live session or a 1:1 meeting directly from any internet-connected device. For students with low WiFi connectivity, they were able to join from their cellular network to interact and learn, lowering the barrier to entry to engage with their future college.

Virtual events and virtual fairs also provided an opportunity for more traditionally underrepresented groups to more easily engage with colleges and universities. While there may always be barriers to participating in a physical campus tour or flying to campus, virtual events provide more equal opportunities for representation across ethnic groups at recruitment events. Students were able to have real conversations, meaning 1:1 interactions with college representatives, in order to know if specific institutions and programs were right for them.

While many institutions are chomping at the bit to get back to in-person campus tours, the data shows that students and their families have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with virtual events and virtual fairs. It’s key to continue to provide opportunities for students and their families to interact with institutions on their own time and in their own ways. 2020 and 2021 were difficult years for everyone. However, if there is one positive idea to be gleaned from the pandemic, it is that virtual events provided new ways for more students across socioeconomic groups to find their future college of choice. 



Recent research shows that more students are thinking about opting out of college this coming fall for a second straight year with students of color and first-generation students being hardest hit by the effects of COVID. To help combat students of color and first-generation students from opting out of college this fall, institutions should encourage students to meet with them virtually, highlight the benefits of their institution for their futures, and ensure that they understand all the financial assistance that can be available to them. During the pandemic and beyond, virtual events allow students to know exactly which higher education institution is best for them.



2. Jessica Dickler, “Another Wave of Students May Opt-Out of College This Fall,” CNBC.com, July 30, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/07/30/fall-2021-college-enrollment-in-jeopardy-as-covid-cases-rise-again.html