May 2021

College admissions departments at Minnesota private colleges have faced unprecedented challenges since March 2020 when the pandemic hit the state, and government-mandated travel and gathering restrictions were issued. Fortunately, admissions staff members were up to the challenge, adapting to the new landscape and changing long-standing practices to safely and effectively continue recruiting.

Of the 17 Council member institutions, approaches have continued to vary. All institutions have jumped into offering more virtually, from campus tours to group sessions, as in-person options were eliminated and decisions had to be made about when to ease back. For the latest visit options, now and through the summer, visit the Council’s explorations resources.

Navigating change in how visits happen, or can’t, has been the watchword for admission offices – and the families they work with. “We learned patience, flexibility and how to calm fears,” said Karen Backes, dean of admission, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. “We learned to be adaptable, flexible and were very sensitive to the emotions of families.”

Minneapolis College of Art and Design adapted to meet the needs of students

There’s something particularly visual about visiting an arts college like the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD). But to be safe the school adapted, suspending in-person tours for six months and focusing on webinars and Zoom calls. Last fall MCAD resumed limited, in-person personal tours for individual students and immediate family members. In April, instead of one large event, the institution hosted 75 prospective students over the span of three “Admitted Student Days” to accommodate for social-distancing and safety.

“When in-person events were suspended last spring, we created a number of virtual webinars on topics such as career development and dorms, we hosted Netflix parties and MCAD president Sanjit Sethi presented a unique cooking webinar,” said Scott Hochhalter, assistant director of admissions. “We also used text messages to provide brief nuggets of information targeted at certain times to connect with students, so we could immediately see responses.”

Every webinar was recorded and posted on the school’s website, where prospective students can view them. Although the webinars sometimes provide an avenue for more robust topic discussion, the personal connection and attention admissions counselors can provide during in-person events were missed.

Hochhalter feels fortunate and confident that as the number of people who have been vaccinated increases, he and his staff will get back to a sense of normalcy with more in-person events. The college will continue to take a hybrid — in-person and virtual — approach to events going forward to accommodate differing comfort levels.

“We’ve learned to be flexible. We have a lot of good webinar content and images showing the campus,” adds Hochhalter. “But walking through campus, interacting with students in a studio, seeing their work and asking questions allows prospective students to ‘see themselves’ on campus in the future. It might be a long time before we can have massive on-campus events, but we’re thinking about how we function as a society moving forward.”

Prospective students eager for visit options at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s

Karen Backes
Karen Backes

At the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University, in-person visits with proper social distancing and masks required resumed in June 2020. According to Karen Backes, dean of admission, this was an easy decision to make because having prospective students see and experience the campus is an essential element of recruiting.

“We determined we could safely accommodate campus visits. With outdoor seating in the spring, summer and fall we were able to meet with most families outside. This helped with social distancing. We had conference rooms reserved when we needed to meet with a single family indoors. We had to be creative. We hired more student guides during the school year and extended our day and added more Saturday visit options to accommodate more visitors,” Backes said. “All families had individual tours and admission representative meetings. Our individual visits increased but without group events our overall visit numbers were still down from previous years.”

Theme-focused webinars — including academics, clubs and activities, nursing, and business economics — were the schools’ signature virtual events. Three to five presenters included combinations of faculty, students and alums, and the webinars reached local, national and international prospective students.

“Our webinars were very successful and we could present more perspectives than using a website link. Having students and student tour guides connect and text with attendees was very valuable,” said Matt Beirne, director of admission, College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University. “We had from five to 200 attendees for webinars. We have webinars scheduled for the summer as we target rising high school juniors and seniors.”

Backes and Beirne emphasized that during the last year, prospective students and families were excited for anything that could be in person — to see the campus, be inside buildings, meet with people in person and enjoy the beauty of their campuses. They’re excited to once again have students experience the energy and excitement larger group events bring to campus — especially football game-day events this fall.

At Bethel University, admissions staff “never done innovating”

Bret Hyder
Bret Hyder

Like other institutions that were required to pause in-person visits, Bethel admissions staff relied on Zoom calls until they could resume hosting in-person visits. Zoom worked well in some ways – 45-minute calls replaced hour-long one-on-one sessions, and costs for catering and staffing were reduced.

But being able to host students on campus was the best option, said Bret Hyder, Bethel’s director of admissions. He noted that more students visited in the fall of 2020, during the pandemic, than fall of 2019. He credited the increase to the human desire to connect and share experiences.

“With Zoom, we could be nimble and didn’t have to schedule appointments days in advance. Zoom worked great for out-of-state prospects and we saved travel expenses,” Hyder said. “But it’s not the same experience when it’s virtual.”

Going forward, Bethel will offer a hybrid approach of in-person and virtual visits for families, however virtual events won’t be a major strategy. While still offering virtual events, Hyder and his staff want students to visit campus as much as possible.

“In-person visits are second to none, but we had to innovate and restructure how we did on-campus visits with help from our COVID team to safely host larger groups,” Hyder added. “The most important thing we learned this past year is that we’re never done innovating to provide a great on-campus experience.”

By Tom Brandes