Trying out the Oculus Rift (Photo credit: Sergey Galyonkin)
Virtual Reality And The Brave New World Of College Recruiting
As colleges and universities face an increasingly tech-savvy applicant pool, many recruiters are seeking out novel ways to speak the new generation’s language. The launch of the Common Application in 1975 – and later online version in 1998 – was one of the most expansive attempts schools made toward revolutionizing the college admissions process. Originally 15 schools participated and last year it processed more than 3 million applications for its over 500 member colleges and universities. Now many institutions are beginning to embrace technology on their own as a marketing tool to attract potential applicants.
The flood of snail mail brochures and flurry of college fairs and campus visits are the all-too-familiar methods of recruitment. A2013 study by Noel-Levitz, a leading enrollment consultant firm, found that the cost of recruiting is $457 per new student at the median at four-year public institutions and $2,433 per new student at the median at private colleges. Given schools’ large per-student expenditures and the relatively untapped market, the college recruitment sector is low-hanging fruit for tech entrepreneurs.
Oculus VR, a virtual reality tech company that made headlines in March for its $2 billion sale to Facebook, is becoming a useful – though perhaps unlikely – ally of college recruiters. The Oculus Rift, a headset geared toward 3D gamers, has dazzled developers since a Kickstarter campaign brought the product to the tech world in 2012. It’s also inspired some education entrepreneurs.
“We’ve found a way to bring the college campus to life,” says Abi Mandelbaum, CEO and cofounder of YouVisit, a leader in virtual campus visits. The Rift is a perfect fit for YouVisit, whose existing library of 360-degree panoramas aims to give students the perspective of actually standing on a school’s campus. Adding the Rift takes it one step further.
Strapping on the Rift is like stepping into a picture. YouVisit’s cofounders like to joke that it’s reverse teleportation – bringing the location to the person. Though you can’t walk around (at least not yet), YouVisit’s collection of images cover much of the campus. Some tours are even guided by real-life, onscreen students. You can practically smell the fresh-cut grass as you loiter in the courtyard of Yale’s Davenport College and hear the beating of the band’s drums as you stand on the 50 yard line during a West Virginia University football game. The Rift elicits something that mere photographs cannot: a sense of atmosphere.
“We are probably the first company to bring Oculus to universities,” notes Mandelbaum. The company has already built more than 1,000 virtual tours for colleges around the world, including Vanderbilt, West Point, and North-West University’s campus in Potchefstroom, South Africa. Developing a YouVisit tour can run schools as little as $3,000, though prices vary based on how extensive a tour the school desires. A recent pilot program has left some administrators scrambling to get their hands on the Rift as soon as possible.
“We were shown a YouVisit tour on the Rift a month ago and we didn’t need to see more – we were sold,” says Benjamin Rethmel, Audencia Nantes School of Management’s international relations representative. The French business school has already pre-ordered an Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 of its own. “When you immerse students and get them involved, you engage them,” says Rethmel. Audencia Nantes believes the $350 device will enrich the quality of the recruitment process, ultimately leading to students making more informed decisions about where to attend.
“Many schools are waiting on the new development kits,” explains Mandelbaum, “and some are even buying older kits because they don’t want to wait.” It’s recruitment season and forward-thinking administrators want to bring the Rift to students as soon as possible. It’s not hard to imagine Rift-powered YouVisit tours stealing the show at high schools and college fairs. “It’s important to be on the front lines of technology. I think students expect you to be looking to innovate,” says Rethmel.
And the college tour isn’t the only aspect of recruitment being enhanced by technology. Many schools have begun to conduct applicant interviews over video calling services like Skype, which allow potential students and colleges admissions officers to connect without the time and resource requirement of an in-person interview. The University of Virginia is experimenting with sending prospective students text messages (the new generation’s medium of choice) with reminders of approaching deadlines. University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan claims that faculty research suggests that, so far, it works.
“Text messages meet students where they are and are more cost effective than more traditional methods of outreach, like mailing letters,” says Sullivan. The university hasn’t fully launched the program, which began this past spring, but remains optimistic about its future.
None of this means the college campus is going completely virtual. A 2014 Noel-Levitz report on e-recruiting practices hints at two areas where colleges are still lagging behind: mobile optimization and social media platforms like Snapchat. While 71% of college-bound students used a phone or tablet to view a school’s website, not even half of survey respondents reported maintaining a mobile-optimized site. Newer social media platforms are also being underutilized, the report suggests. Over 96% of college and universities use Facebook, yet less than 3% use Snapchat as a recruiting tool despite nearly 40% of prospective students using the app.
Mandelbaum recalls what one college administrator told the YouVisit team: “Thank you for bringing us into the 21st century.”
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