Back To School Planning Starts Now: Tips for Success

By: Sarah Doar
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Summer break brings with it the beginning of fall planning. With mounting evidence showing that the pandemic has hurt college retention rates, university leaders need to put processes in place now to attract and retain students come fall. In fact, retention has dropped two percentage points to 73.9% – the lowest since 2012.

Universities must put their best foot forward to create highly engaging orientations, campus tours and open houses for prospective students and their families. They also need to consider how they’re handling back to school events to create inclusive experiences for their diverse student bodies. From marketing to admissions to campus life, the stakes are higher for universities to shine a light on how they’re setting students up for success and providing fulfilling college experiences. 

Here are some key elements to take into account now as you begin the planning process for the next semester.

Craft Effective Content to Attract Prospective Students

One of the best ways to engage today’s prospective higher ed students is through video. The majority of Generation Z and Millennials prefer watching short videos rather than longer videos that go over the two minute mark. It comes as no surprise that upwards of 83% of university candidates are using social channels like YouTube, Instagram and even TikTok to research universities.

Two Girls loooking at phone

Boston College’s Harry Potter-themed promotional video is an example of associating a unique aspect of one’s college, in their case, gothic architecture, with a popular social reference that prospective students find compelling. Boston College received a lot of buzz when this video was released for its creativity, high production value and ability to grab students’ attention. With a score played by the school orchestra and sweeping shots of the historical campus, the promo video showcased Boston College as a magical place to live and study.

Additionally, to allow the videos you’re investing in to reach the greatest audience number possible, employing tactics to make them inclusive for diverse students and their families is key.  For example, adding captions is best practice to enhance any social video as many scroll their social feeds on mute. However, captions like AST’s meet the accuracy levels needed to also support individuals who may be exploring your institution’s content with disabilities, such as ADHD or hearing loss. If you’re also targeting international students in specific regions, adding subtitles to your videos can make sure students and parents who are watching in their non-native can also understand them. These small tweaks can help you expand your reach and make everyone feel included and connected to your content and university.

Campus Tours and Open Houses

To stay competitive and create engaging experiences for prospective students or new ones who are getting their lay of the land, start thinking about how to bring visitor events to the next level. For events in person, there are a myriad of ways to get creative when it comes to showing off both the campus and the area’s best assets. 

VIew of campus with trees

As you plan for these events, keep in mind that not everyone will be able to come to your campus in-person. You can get creative and use technologies to both enhance on-site visits and create engaging virtual ones.

Portland State University has a tour offering that allows students to go beyond the basics of seeing yet another dorm room. The Sustainability Tour in Portland highlights some of the city’s greatest environmentally-friendly assets. It also offers a bike tour that promises to give prospective students a very authentic experience, taking advantage of bike trails and areas of the campus otherwise inaccessible for a standard walking tour.

360° video is also being used for virtual tours of campus which opens up access to students out of state and internationally who want to get a real feel for your campus.


The University of Southern Indiana launched car campus tours. Prospective students and their families can drive through the campus, safari-style, with a student tour guide connected via Zoom. Visitors get to see the campus up close while also connecting with a current student to give them a more personal experience. This type of student-led content is on the rise. Putting current students front and center gives prospective students a real feel for campus life. Some current students are even being allowed to take over Instagram and TikTok accounts to showcase a day in the life and show visitors the best of campus life.

When hosting these events – in-person and online – it’s important to allow prospective and current students and their families to submit requests should they need accessibility accommodations to consume the event or content effectively. They will appreciate the equitable opportunity you’ve given them to connect to these experiences.


school field

A successful orientation will give students confidence that they have all of the information and resources they need to be successful. Here are three tips to keep in mind when building an enriching student orientation program.

  1. Use apps to communicate the agenda and expectations in advance 
    Accessible apps are great for helping students to confidently self-navigate their orientation. Apps can contain FAQs, maps, schedules, captioned how-to videos and extracurricular info. Delivering information through digital channels can take a lot of the confusion out of orientation day and streamline the experience for students and faculty alike.
  2. Create a welcoming atmosphere with icebreaker activities 
    When it comes to getting students acclimated in a new environment, icebreakers can make a world of difference. At Syracuse University, the Freshman Stomp is a special occasion during New Student Orientation that encourages student participation right off the bat. Incoming students jump and stomp within the arched cutouts in the outside walls of the Carrier Dome, a site on campus. This has become a Syracuse University tradition with alumni still returning  to the school to “stomp” at orientation years later. Creating icebreakers that are “outside of the box” and, more importantly, really showcase what your university is all about help to make orientation day all the more special.
  3. Incorporate ceremonies 
    Making orientation an important milestone offers a meaningful way for students to lean into the momentous occasion of starting their college career. Elon University’s student orientation has embraced a New Student Convocation. Families are invited to attend. At the end of the convocation, each new student receives an acorn. Upon graduation, students receive a small oak sapling to show their growth. This is a particularly creative way to personalize the ceremony to the university as Elon means “oak” in Hebrew.  Whether these ceremonies are held in-person or online, planning them with accessibility in mind and proactively offering options like translation or captions is a best practice.

Institutions like Hinds Community College work with AST to make their events like convocations accessible,  receiving live captioning on streamed content and post-production captioning within 24 hours. This takes the stress out of having to manually integrate accessibility and knowing your events will be inclusive so you can focus on other event details. 

Athletic Events

So much happens outside of the classroom and ensuring your sporting events kick off in a big way and include all students is important for student life. Athletic events should also be planned to be inclusive so that all students regardless of disability or need can come together.

football game

To best engage your students, use technology to your advantage. Plan for different ways for people to interact such as in stadiums, together with their dorm or via remote live stream. Keep in mind that both your current student body and your alumni are likely watching. Looking for ways to include them all is essential to connect with them effectively. Events being live streamed on apps should also feature captions and can be audio described for individuals who are Blind or have low vision. Making these events accessible to prospective students all the way through seasoned alumni with an array of different needs and who are watching in different scenarios, will help them all feel connected. 

Incorporate inclusive strategies into your planning now

Orientation, campus tours and open houses are part of facilitating a welcoming, inclusive environment on campus where all students can successfully engage from Day 1 and have the most fulfilling college experience possible.

As you plan for your back to school events and online experiences, AST can serve as an essential partner to think with accessibility in mind from the start. We provide support to help you meet ADA guidelines with trusted solutions like captioning, transcription, translation and audio description. Ensuring that students’ event and engagement needs are met from the get-go prevents them having to seek out or self identify if they do not wish to. So many others regardless of disability will also benefit from access to these solutions as additional learning and video consumption tools.

Reach out to us to learn more about how we can partner to create accessible, successful back to school experiences and events.