Admissions: Adapting During COVID and the Enrollment Outlook

Admissions: Adapting During COVID and the Enrollment Outlook
Lynne Palmer

The traditional challenges in enrollment that admission officers face all over the country have been focused on rising costs, shrinking demographics, and the essential financial resources to support diverse and vibrant enrollment goals. Those haven’t changed and are arguably more essential than ever. Now, throw in a pandemic with necessary restrictions that limit physical engagement and travel, impact economic stability, and create additional inequities to access—and in a word, the situation for admissions teams has been crushing! The art of putting adaptability into action in a way that met the growing challenges and demands of the expectation with both compassion and awareness is what the Brewster Admission Team, with the help of a willing and eager school community, did this year. 

Objectively, Brewster’s enrollment was strong when we opened campus in August with 288 students in person and 50 students in online learning. Admissions had experienced a healthy boost in new enrollment yields and resilient re-enrollment numbers that spoke to the trust and satisfaction of the new and returning families. The required pivot in March 2020 to create a virtual experience for the newly accepted families—those who were still deciding if they would enroll their children at Brewster—was a herculean effort from this community that provided a sound foundation for what was to come. “What Brewster does well is recognize what challenges people may face and support them when they need it—we lived that,” said Alice Mann, Senior Associate Director of Admission. “We were challenged by COVID and supported by our colleagues, students, families, alumni, and more.” 

The challenges were compounded by many factors including a campus closed to visitors during the school year (and limited visits when no students were present on campus), none of the in-person events typically used to start building relationships, and cancelled travel for associates (which ultimately limited the funnel of inquiries). In addition, the workplace environment had changed due to the need to keep non-student facing adults separated from students. Many employees were working from home, which made it difficult to freely engage with the typical in-person resources. In response, the strategic focus shifted back to the virtual approaches that began in March. Admissions held more than 30 virtual events throughout the year, including an open house, meet-ups (conversations to connect prospective parents and students with identified Brewster personnel), informational webinars focused specifically on added value programs as well as a dynamic accepted student website experience with videos to bring the sentiment and excitement of our community to them. Students were actively engaged in the virtual visit process, using phone stabilizers to walk through the hallways and dorms answering questions live from prospective students while speaking about life on campus. Many of these virtual experiences happened outside of the regular work day, and the team responded by embracing the 24/7 approach!

Looking forward, although Zoom fatigue is very real these days, being able to engage with interested students and parents at the inquiry level and beyond and provide a look at the depth of Brewster’s program in ways that are tailored and differentiated for prospective families from the comfort of their own homes was a positive. They were able to pick and choose topics of interest, dig deeper, and manage it all without the risk of travel. Of course, there was a trade off—admission counselors did not get the same interaction as they do in person, but when used strategically, they were able to foster that essential connection—a quintessential part of the school’s personalized process. The other big trade off? Prospective students and their families experiencing Brewster virtually did not get to have that “wow!” moment seeing our lakeside location for the first time…or becoming charmed by a walk downtown for lunch or coffee. But videos and personal testimonials about our amazing location stepped in as best they could. Now, the opportunity and the challenge will be to find the right balance between in person and virtual, and to create events that are both informative and create connections that build familiarity and confidence. 

One of the most significant changes brought about this year was the addition of an early acceptance timeline. Families were given the option to be considered for an early decision—if they completed their application by January 15, they would hear back from admissions on February 1. The driver for this change was to allow students more time to consider their choice and provide them with added opportunities to make connections through the suite of virtual options available to them, but maintain the same decision date of April 10. The majority of first-round applicants (54%) chose to take advantage of this new option.

The new student enrollment has been robust and the school’s overall enrollment picture is very strong with limited spaces available at this time. New students represent 21 U.S. states this year, stretching from coast to coast. Our international student representation is similar to previous years with 15 countries currently represented. The only exception in new activity has been from Chinese families, due mostly to travel restrictions. The F1 visa process has been taking longer in many countries, prompting the team in Admissions to process the essential documentation expeditiously so that families can schedule appointments with the appropriate consulates.

One of the brightest transformations has been the addition of the group of 23 Royal Thai Scholars to our campus this year. Brewster has been the long-standing summer home for this program and became the school year post-graduate program during the pandemic. The agreement between Brewster and the Thai government to maintain these selected students at Brewster has been a wonderful addition to our community, and we are honored to continue this partnership next year.

Director of Admission Nick Wilbur reflected on the challenges faced by his team this year. “The office came together and did a great job of going above and beyond to help provide families with the best opportunity to help families understand what makes Brewster special in a trying admissions cycle,” he said. If you were to ask this team—Marsha, Reb, Allie, Mike, Jamie, Jason, Alice, and Nick—what they missed most during this complex enrollment season, they would likely tell you it was the genuine conversation during a student interview, the ancillary moment that took place between a visiting parent and a teacher on tour, or the competitive banter between colleagues at a school fair. As the world becomes a safer place to venture back out to, we expect the status quo to resume in many ways, but be prepared for the experience to be changed in ways that will be more engaging and worthy for all.


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