The Pandemic-Proof B-School

With the right outreach, business schools can strengthen their brands and boost their enrollments in the time of corona.

Hand removes domino before falling to virus

AS THE WORLD faces an unprecedented social and economic reality, it’s clear the dramatic and sudden upheaval over the past eight months has many prospective college students in crisis mode, as they take this time to focus on day-to-day needs. In the United States, for instance, there was an 11 percent decrease in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) submissions. This drop in applications for financial aid indicates that students are less inclined to pursue traditional bachelor’s degrees amid the pandemic. 

Fortunately for many higher education institutions, the number of students pursuing graduate business degrees has helped offset the decline, with many schools experiencing stable or rising enrollment numbers. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, full-time MBA applications at the country’s top schools rose 13 percent this year, reversing a five-year downturn.

As these trends unfold, universities are placing their bets on a successful fall 2021 semester. Some industry watchers predict an enrollment windfall for undergraduate and graduate programs, as students adjust to the new normal and once again turn to higher education to support their professional and financial growth. 

For these reasons, business school leaders should view the next few months as an opportunity. It’s time for each of them to answer an important question: How can my institution reinforce its brand identity and continue to grow, even as it responds to the needs of its community?   

LEAN INTO DIGITAL TRADITION

Higher education is, at its core, a service industry; institutions base their value on the academic experience they provide. Given the fact that the pandemic has pushed many academic programs online, the first thing business school leaders must do is strengthen or grow their faculty’s capacity to deliver quality online learning experiences.

Unfortunately, this spring, many campuses dealt with an unexpected—and sometimes bungled—transition to a digital instructional delivery, causing their students to question their ability to deliver educational value during the pandemic. On the other hand, those business programs with longstanding expertise in online learning were able to greatly increase their value over the past year.

Business schools should now be encouraging their faculty to lean heavily into this digital tradition and expand upon it. Then, they should promote messaging that emphasizes the well-built digital infrastructure of the university, the flexible delivery of their programs, and the value of their online programs. 

Jeremi Bauer, dean of the Malcolm Baldrige School of Business at Post University in Waterbury, Connecticut, emphasizes that his institution’s tech-oriented offerings enabled a smooth, quick transition to online learning. “Because we have a strong online foundation,” says Bauer, “we can focus on our school’s growth rather than navigating how to provide an outstanding virtual student experience.” 

But it’s not enough for business schools to promote robust digital infrastructures. They also should emphasize and prioritize personalized online learning experiences in all messaging. If students believe that a nontraditional program will support their needs, they can approach their educations with confidence.

“An economic downturn provides opportunities to increase enrollments, but those enrollments won’t necessarily be sustainable if you haven’t delivered on your strategic value,” explains Bauer. “Part of the market message of value comes from delivering an extraordinary student experience.”

FOCUS ON SKILLS-BASED BENEFITS

Business schools are traditionally among the first to pivot their curricula and recruitment efforts in response to sudden economic change. That’s why so many attract nontraditional students and adult learners, who themselves might be pivoting to new positions and careers. As the technology and logistics industries are showing unprecedented growth due to COVID-19, it is the perfect time for business schools to offer a variety of skills-focused degrees and certificates. 

“PART OF THE MARKET MESSAGE OF VALUE COMES FROM DELIVERING AN EXTRAORDINARY STUDENT EXPERIENCE.”—Jeremi Bauer, Post University

In summer 2021, as companies begin to recover, they will be looking for new hires whose skills prepare them to be effective in their positions immediately. With that in mind, b-school marketers should move away from promotions that simply focus on, for instance, the institution’s bachelor’s program in accounting; instead, they should realign their messaging to emphasize the relevant, practical skills students will learn from the program, such as spreadsheet analysis. 

“You have to educate students on what is going on in the market,” says Paul Moore, dean of business programs collegewide at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He points to industries such as hospitality, which likely will see a surge of growth in the post-pandemic economy. Students should be examining the skills required in these industries carefully, he stresses. “The question for them becomes, ‘How do I make myself ready and employable?’”

EMPHASIZE TIME TO COMPLETION

As industries rebound and employers resume their recruitment activities, prospective students will be laser-focused on the time it takes to complete their degrees. A business school’s promotional messaging also should expound upon current and upcoming microcertifications, in addition to traditional degrees.

“Having certifications laddered within bachelor’s degrees helps keep students on track for two reasons: They see progress and become immediately employable for entry-level positions while completing their degrees,” says Moore. “For example, students in our hospitality management program can earn five separate technical certificates as they complete their associate degrees.”

REACH BROADER STUDENT POOLS

Once businesses return to pre-pandemic operations, it’s likely that demand for well-trained employees will outpace graduates. For this reason, schools should be considering tactics to diversify recruitment now.  

Some schools have achieved record enrollments through the use of resourceful recruitment tactics. For instance, after Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois, announced it would reconsider previously rejected candidates, it saw a 54 percent increase in applications compared to the previous year. As it turned out, no previously rejected candidates were subsequently admitted—even so, Kellogg this year enrolled its largest class in history. Many schools, including Kellogg, also attracted more applications by waiving standardized test requirements after testing locations closed during the pandemic.

Broward College adopted a different approach when it implemented synchronous learning and flexible modes of course delivery. “We retrofitted some of our classrooms so courses can be broadcast across various mediums,” says Sunem Beaton-Garcia, the college’s president. “Our students can sit in the actual class, attend a livestream at another campus location, or view the class from home.”

Simulcasting live courses not only serves as an attractive marketing tool for the college, she adds. It also reduces costs and drives revenue because it allows the school to admit more students who would otherwise be restricted from enrolling due to transportation or scheduling challenges.

REIGNITE CONNECTIONS

Alumni engagement is the crux of most business schools’ overall success. Now, more than ever, institutions should be fortifying those connections, even if their engagement must be done exclusively online. In lieu of in-person events, schools could challenge alumni to reconnect with their alma maters by providing mentoring and shadowing opportunities, externships, and entry-level positions.

“It comes down to having a conversation with the alumni partner and understanding the nature of the internships,” says Bauer. “Some internships, such as those in finance, can be virtual. Others, like those in manufacturing, might require some extra planning for in-person immersion.”

Alumni also can serve as ad hoc leaders by joining an advisory council. Consider Harvard University, which took this idea to the extreme, announcing that it would pair a cohort of executive fellows with faculty members to help support curricular needs. Schools can make their programs appear highly desirable when they emphasize such engagement initiatives to prospective candidates—both first-time applicants and those seeking professional development. 

“MOMENTS OF CRISIS ARE WHEN WE’RE PUSHED OUT OF OUR COMFORT ZONE TO THINK CREATIVELY.”—Sunem Beaton-Garcia, Broward College

Although the pandemic has changed many things, the criteria of what makes a “good” business school is still largely derived from rankings. The rankings are driven by statistics such as postgraduate employability, which in turn is best illustrated by the success of a school’s alumni. Business schools should look for as many ways as possible to foster and showcase the success of their alumni in order to drive student recruitment. 

‘NEVER WASTE A CRISIS’

It has never been more important for business schools to shift their perspective than it is during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who view the current situation as an opportunity rather than as a catastrophe are more likely to see rising student enrollments.

“I always say, ‘never waste a good crisis,’” says Beaton-Garcia. “Moments of crisis are when we’re pushed out of our comfort zone to think creatively and find new solutions to age-old problems.”

Business schools still face an uncertain year ahead. But if they can modify their messaging, focus on program benefits, emphasize short skills-based programs, revamp recruitment strategies, and harness the talents of their alumni, they could make themselves pandemic-proof—and emerge from this crisis even stronger than before.


Lesli Cartaya Franco is vice president of O’Connell & Goldberg Public Relations, where she leads a team focused on brand building for academic institutions.

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