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College choice often comes down to the campus visit. So what's a school to do during coronavirus?

College choice often comes down to the campus visit. So what's a school to do during coronavirus?

Campus tours enable prospective students to breathe a college’s atmosphere and decide whether the school could become home.

But this spring, campus visits are limited to the presentations schools can make through virtual tours, which are a distant imitation of strolling through campus.

One prospective student on a virtual visit offered by Midland University last week asked: “Since we don’t get to join you on campus in person, how would you describe Midland’s campus feel?”

Conveying campus feel and character is the challenge for virtual tours. Colleges are doing their best to sell themselves using visits via video conferences. But by comparison to an in-person tour, virtual technology limits what colleges can show and who the prospective students can meet.

Following the coronavirus shutdown of campus tours in March, admissions teams have hustled to assemble tours via remote technology. Sessions typically are live and interspersed with some prerecorded video, photographs and charts.

Sessions can be fashioned for a student’s interests and may include admissions counselors, professors, coaches and students already enrolled. Some are group sessions and some are one on one.

Dusty Newton, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, said he was “not sure we’ve figured out how” to provide a sense of campus character remotely. “How can we come close to that?”

Students who visit a campus are more likely to attend that school, said Sara Hanson, vice president for enrollment services at the College of St. Mary. That makes the virtual visit a critical feature of recruitment this spring, Hanson said.

Grant De Roo, principal with ADV Market Research in Iowa City, said in-person visits have always been critical to college recruitment. “It really comes down to the visit on campus,” De Roo said. “It’s really a gut feel.”

This spring, though, admissions teams must say, “Let’s just do as much as we can. Let’s do whatever we can,” De Roo said.

He said many colleges have moved their application deadlines from May 1 to June 1 to adjust for the confusion of this recruiting season. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Creighton University are among those.

Two Midland admissions counselors last week led a live, two-hour Zoom session, which was joined by more than 10 prospective students from Nebraska, Colorado, Texas, California, Hawaii, Canada, Great Britain and Hungary. Initially the students asked no questions.

Admissions counselor Polly Latshaw joked that either she was doing a great job of explaining things or the prospective students had just gotten out of bed that morning. The student from Hungary, Nora Rozsa, noted that it was almost 6 p.m. where she lives.


Josie Petrulis

Brownell Talbot junior Josie Petrulis had already visited Marquette, the University of Wisconsin and Chicago-Loyola in person before the coronavirus shutdown.

Since then, she has taken a virtual tour of Hastings College and plans to take tours at other schools. Petrulis said she had heard that the Hasting campus was attractive, but it was hard to get a sense of that in an online tour. She spoke to an admissions counselor, a student and a basketball coach, among others.

She had hoped to meet remotely with a business faculty member, but time didn’t allow it, she said. She said she loved her actual visit to Marquette, but Hastings is still in the running. She’ll eventually have to visit the campus when the virus shutdown ends, she said, if she intends to go there.

“Pictures only tell you so much,” she said.

At Concordia University in Seward, an actual tour often includes going to the daily 11 a.m. chapel service, which impresses some parents and prospective students.

“Many of them have said, ‘That’s what makes Concordia special,’ ’’ said Aaron Roberts, the school’s director of admissions. The service, still given, is now livestreamed online.

Roberts said that calling every family that was lined up for an actual tour and rescheduling to the virtual variety proved challenging.

De Roo said the logistics of lining up everyone for a single virtual tour — the coach a student wants, the professor in the student’s major, the admissions counselor, the college students who can describe life there — is difficult.

“The coordination there is a massive undertaking,” he said.

At UNL, separate virtual meetings are often necessary, said Abby Freeman, director of admissions. A prospective student might have a virtual visit with the baseball coach one day and with a math professor another day.

“They could talk with us every day if they wanted to or felt they needed to,” Freeman said. “Our goal is to be ready and available to them.”

Colleges have different approaches

  • Some schools’ virtual sessions go beyond two hours, but Chris Schukei, dean of admissions at Hastings, tries to limit his to 60 to 75 minutes. Schukei, who worked with comedian David Letterman’s television show for 11 years, said he thinks a student might tune out longer visits.
  • At Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, a coach or an admissions counselor gives a live tour of campus with a smartphone, by Facebook Live or FaceTime.
  • Creighton doesn’t use prerecorded videos of campus during virtual visits, preferring instead to personalize the visit for each prospective student, said Mary Chase, vice provost for enrollment. If a student wishes, he can use Google Maps to tour the campus and buildings, Chase said.
  • Metro Community College, which enrolls many older students (more than 50% of its student population) and has a different recruiting schedule from a conventional school, has just wrapped up taking photos of its campuses for its website and upcoming virtual tours.
  • Chadron State last week began offering video chats with student ambassadors. Some sessions are offered Tuesday evening.

Admissions directors generally said it’s too early to say how effective the virtual tours have been. Most said the technology itself — Zoom, Facebook Live, Blackboard Collaborate — has worked OK.

Concordia’s Roberts said that as of April 14, his school has confirmed, through application deposits, 282 new students. That’s exactly the number that had confirmed by April 14 last year, he said.

Hanson, with the College of St. Mary, didn’t rule out the chance that some students might prefer the virtual visit. After all, it gives prospective students who are a long way from Omaha the chance to look the college over without a long drive or flight.

“I’ll be curious whether students actually prefer the virtual visit versus face to face,” she said.

Midland University President Jody Horner told the recent virtual visitors that she knew they had missed significant high school events because of the virus outbreak.

But that is no reason, Horner said, for any students to abandon their dreams. We want you, she said, to be a future Midland Warrior.