COVID Changed Higher Education Overnight

How 5HD Helped a Titan of Graduate Education Adapt to the New Normal

COVID-19 brought monumental challenges to the higher education sector. As campuses and universities shut their doors and sent their communities home, a fervent need for exclusively digital communication quickly arose. Our client, the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), faced an uphill battle into unknown territory: online learning. Well versed in online learning, the 5HD team was not only immediately available, but also well-prepared to assist HGSE with pivoting their business model and successfully reaching their admissions goals for the upcoming academic year.

Breaking Tradition to Find a Solution

Applications for Fall 2020 enrollment were expected to be high, and the entire HGSE community was looking forward to celebrating their 100th anniversary. The Harvard experience focuses on learning and community, which they felt were best accomplished on campus in Cambridge, MA. However, as the spring season continued, it became apparent that COVID-19 was not going away anytime soon and HGSE’s thought process began to shift. 

Between travel restrictions, economic changes, and the overall health crisis, accepted fall 2020 applicants were feeling uncertain about their options, hesitating to complete their enrollment. In comparison, educators world-wide were seeking assistance during a time of unprecedented change. As a leader in the field of education, HGSE was left with three simultaneous challenges to overcome:

  1. Introduce an online Master of Education (Ed.M.) for the first time in HGSE history and address current challenges in the field of education
  2. Retain students who had just recently been accepted and were on the fence about enrolling
  3. Continue to connect with and recruit new prospective students to make up for the applicants that chose not to attend the fall offering

To combat dwindling enrollment numbers, HGSE broke with tradition and rolled out a summer admissions process. Knowing they needed a reliable partner, HGSE called and 5HD answered.

Relying on a Trusted Partner

As a renowned digital agency for almost a decade, 5HD holds extensive knowledge and experience with selling online programs. When challenges arose in the spring of 2020, we adapted without missing a beat. 

While HGSE’s team focused on transitioning the Ed.M. program to a virtual format, Harvard leaned on 5HD for our expertise in digital marketing and outreach. From our experience with HGSE, our team knew that typical conversion for the admissions cycle was 1-2 years. With the new summer admissions process, our biggest challenge was time. We were tasked with identifying and targeting the right audience and channels, and achieving conversion in a 5-6 week timeframe.

Creating an Effective Strategy

Since the Ed.M. program was now online and being offered both full-time and part-time, our target audience changed drastically. Potential students could live anywhere in the world and participate completely online. With the option of part-time learning, our applicants expanded to include parents and full-time professionals. Moving locations was no longer an issue, providing a more financially attainable graduate school option for applicants across the U.S.

Alongside HGSE, we mapped out a plan to reach this new target audience. Our team focused on program awareness/lead generation and lead nurturing/application conversion. What normally would have been a four-step marketing plan, had to be condensed to two phases. Through advertising via social media and search engines, 5HD developed brand new copy, artwork, and video content for a variety of platforms in record time.

Increasing Applicant Pool Diversity

Though there was much concern about the impact of switching from on campus to online, the situation presented a unique opportunity for HGSE to open their Ed.M. program to a broader range of applicants. Not only would they be able to increase program diversity, but they could see how well the program translated to an online experience. This online offering was highlighted as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain an exemplary graduate education in the comfort of your own home.

Throughout the summer admissions cycle, applicants’ average years of work experience went from 3.3 to 9.5 as the average age jumped from 26.4 to 35.2. With the introduction of part-time learning, applicant requests went from 3.2% to 48.4% for part-time education. Virtual learning gave students across the nation more opportunity to participate without moving to Cambridge, increasing domestic student applicants from 53.8% to 70.7%. 

Diversifying their applicant pool has been an ongoing goal for HGSE, and the summer admissions process achieved those goals and more. Applications from students of color jumped from 25.4% to 38.2%. Students applying from low income districts increased from 16% to 30%. First generation students went from 25.5% to 39% of applications.

Achieving Unprecedented Success

At the conclusion of the summer admissions cycle, 5HD and HGSE had received more than 10,000 leads. Of those leads, the HGSE admissions team received almost 2,500 applications. Overall, HGSE saw a 73% increase of summer applications compared to the spring 2020 admissions cycle. 

Revisiting Results a Year After the World Changed

Almost a year later, our team is still working hand-in-hand with HGSE to solve any and all challenges that come their way. We know higher education and we continue to stay current in a digital world that is constantly changing. Working from our kitchens or living rooms, with kids and family underfoot, we consistently make sure our clients are operating smoothly in this time of uncertainty. 

5HD was honored to be who Harvard turned to when they needed help. In such a short timeline, we were able to adapt HGSE’s messaging to drive traffic for the summer admissions cycle and achieve the results they needed to have a successful 2020 fall semester. Our main focus has been and always will be to help our clients address their challenges, pivot when necessary, and achieve their end goals. As problem solvers, our team of professionals at 5HD are the thought-partners and strategists that our clients in higher education are looking for.