Editor's note: It's harder than ever for colleges to fill their incoming classes, but some schools are meeting that challenge with creativity. In this monthly column, called The Pipeline, we'll spotlight innovative tactics colleges are using to cut through the noise and reach prospective students throughout the recruitment and enrollment process.
As the pandemic worsened this past fall, local restrictions on in-person gatherings put Kent State University in a bind. Like colleges nationwide, it wouldn't be able to hold admissions events the way it usually did, with packs of students and families gathering indoors for presentations and traversing the campus on tours.
That worried school officials, who relied on those visits to lock in prospective students, said Vince Slomsky, Kent State's strategic communications director for enrollment management.
It needed an alternative. And Slomsky had an idea.
In the midst of the pandemic, he had seen some of his favorite artists, like the country star Jordan Davis, pull off concerts in drive-in theaters, where they'd perform to car-bound crowds.
Why couldn't the university shift its admissions soirees to such a venue? Slomsky put in a few calls to drive-ins across the state to explain his "off-the-wall" idea. The theater operators were confused at first but were up for it. Now, it was a matter of whether the students would turn out.
To catch their eye, Kent State created a website for the events, called KSU2U, which its admissions officials plugged, including on social media.
Each event followed a similar format: Students and their families would arrive around dusk, pulling their vehicles into the spaces where moviegoers would otherwise park to watch a film. As music played across the lot, university representatives greeted attendees, gifting them swag bags filled with branded goodies like beanies and mittens.
Attendees would remain in their cars while Kent State officials floated around the lots to answer their questions, calling over admissions and financial aid counselors as needed. Minding COVID-19 safety protocols, school representatives wore face masks and stayed at a socially distanced range.
When darkness fell, university staff would project an hour-long admissions video on the silver screen that they would traditionally show during campus visits. It covered frequently asked questions like the number of majors the university offers and included students sharing why they selected Kent State.
Attention then turned to Instagram Live, where current Kent State students would use the streaming service on the popular photo-sharing platform to address student and family questions and talk about their experiences. Prospective students would tune in from their smartphones in the car.
Kent State hosted five of the drive-in events in November in or near the state's largest cities: Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus and Toledo. Attendance ranged from around 100 to more than 300 students and other guests per event, Slomsky said.
They cost the university about $1,000 to $1,500 each, which included reserving the grounds and giving each attendee a concession stand voucher for food and drinks. This was much less expensive than the campuswide admissions blowouts. Food costs alone for those would eclipse the entire bill for the drive-in event, he said.
Enrollment management officials are optimistic about using virtual avenues to reach students during and after the health crisis, but "Zoom fatigue is very real," Slomsky said, and the drive-ins offered a break from the online monotony.
"This is more of an in-person experience. You're talking with somebody one-on-one and you're leaving your home, turning your laptop down and going somewhere," he said.
Admissions is a tricky business, and the events are a good way to make the best of a bad situation, said Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost at Oregon State University and an enrollment management expert.
"We'll never know exactly how parents and students are reacting to our online events and other new things we're trying, but it's important for us to keep moving forward," he wrote in an email.
Although the process of setting up the drive-ins was smooth, Slomsky recommended that institutions wanting to replicate them plan ahead. Kent State pulled them together last minute and found the theaters were generally only open a couple of days a week, necessitating officials to make some weekend calls to secure the venues, he said.
Kent State officials are headed back to the theaters in April, this time with events for admitted students.
Some components of the admissions cycle need to happen in person, Slomsky said. "Otherwise it doesn't click in the same way."