From the sidewalk, Kristi Lafree glanced up at the branches of the dogwood trees creating a canopy over her head. It was March 13, 2020, and she realized the trees would soon be blooming with the bright-pink flowers that help make the Butler University campus so photogenic. She made a mental note to get pictures for some enrollment marketing materials she was working on.
She didn’t know the United States would declare a national emergency due to COVID-19 that day, and those dogwood trees would be dropping their reddish-purple fall leaves before she saw them again.
“Everything we did in the Office of Admission was turned upside down,” says Lafree, Director of Enrollment Marketing. “It’s been a whirlwind.”
From full steam ahead to full stop
Lafree and the Butler enrollment staff were in full recruitment mode that day. Student-led tours and family visits were scheduled. Admission counselors were visiting college fairs and high schools across the country. Even the very first visit for new University mascot Butler Blue IV (“Blue”) and new handler Evan Krauss ’16 to surprise a student with their official offer of admission was in the works.
Suddenly, none of those things could happen. And the future of hundreds of high school seniors—the prime audience for all these efforts—had just become extraordinarily uncertain.
“Every student we were working with had been impacted. They needed answers, and we got the phone calls,” says Lori Greene, Vice President for Enrollment Management. “There were concerns about advanced placement tests. There were concerns about final grades on transcripts. How would all these issues affect their college admission?”
Now-Director of Admission Jerome “Jerry” Dueweke says the staff was “moving at light speed” to keep up. “No one had a script. It was all hands on deck.”
Top priority: Ease the pain
Despite the pace, Butler’s enrollment team made a key decision early on: to act with empathy.
“The stress on high school seniors is unbelievable. We’ve done everything we can to alleviate that,” Lafree says.
Greene agrees. “We communicated all along the way, ‘We understand. You’re not having a prom, you won’t get the grades you worked so hard for. We’re sorry, and we want to help.’”
High school counselors were concerned about the strain on their seniors. In response, Butler’s Admission staff made themselves available to help students through the college search process, even those no longer considering Butler.
The staff made numerous other adjustments to lessen the stress. In one example, Butler made SATs and ACTs (entrance exams) optional for the 2021 incoming class and beyond. In another, admitted students normally must formally say “yes” by May 1, the National Candidate’s Reply Date. Butler joined other institutions in extending this deadline to June 1, which gave students a breather but shortened the time for processing.
Of the 800 high school visits Admission staff usually planned, 600 were converted to virtual events. Of the 300 college fairs usually attended, staff replaced most with more labor-intensive one-on-one virtual student visits. Three virtual open houses were especially successful; Dueweke says these would have been six-hour events in person, with far fewer attendees than the 800 who showed up on-screen.
“We knew we had to keep our virtual open houses quick-moving. No session would be longer than 40 minutes, and instead of just a faculty member, we’d add faculty, a student, sometimes an Admission staff member in the chat tool. Then we had Evan and Blue between sessions. Three separate times, someone said that not only was it the best virtual open house they’ve attended, but possibly the best open house, period,” he says.
For Dueweke, it’s now hard to imagine not offering a virtual open house for students who are out of state even after COVID-19.
Back on campus, (almost) back to normal
Despite successes, the staff’s goal became hosting visitors on campus by the end of June—a goal they achieved.
“We were out in front of most universities in bringing families to campus. Right away, the feedback was very positive. The overwhelming majority appreciated that we were making the effort,” Greene says.
Changes to the enrollment team’s work are far from over, though. Greene believes all universities will see long-term effects of the pandemic on enrollment.
“Higher education was already facing ‘what’s the value proposition’ arguments. First-year students in private colleges are down almost 9 percent. There’s such uncertainty about the future, especially for families that own businesses. And loss of income is disproportionately affecting students of color or low socioeconomic status, which means they may not be able to enroll,” she says.
Still, the first-year class in 2020 was the third-largest in the University’s history.
“We’ve done such a good job focusing on relationships and personalization,” Greene says. “We’re very blessed with so many individuals who really love Butler. It’s a special place.”