Virtual college tours could offer benefits that outlast pandemic

COVID-related safety precautions shifted many college tours to a virtual experience, but the approach may end up having long-term value as a tool for recruiting students who cannot afford to travel or face other barriers to exploring campuses in-person, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

The nature and quality of virtual college tours can vary widely. Some institutions load videos onto YouTube; others rely on Google Maps. A platform called YouVisit (which hosts Georgetown University’s virtual tour) provides interactivity and 360-degree views.

Investing in virtual tours as an equity tool

While their approaches may differ, colleges are increasingly unified in their enthusiasm for offering and optimizing their virtual experiences. Done well, virtual tours can have “significant benefits” for students who cannot get to campus because of financial constraints, child care responsibilities, and other barriers, Ffiona Rees, board chair of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, told The Chronicle. “Virtual allows students to look at a much broader range of colleges, as far as size, as far as type, as far as geographic location,” she said.

More than three quarters of admissions officials surveyed this August by Inside Higher Ed said they assume that some (or many) students will continue to use videos instead of visiting campuses. YouVisit, meanwhile, has added 160 new clients since the pandemic began, according to The Chronicle.

What improvements would appeal to prospective students?

Noting that some virtual college tours remain institution-centric, not student-centric, The Chronicle interviewed several first-generation students about opportunities for virtual college tours to better serve student needs. Their responses indicated “a need for more human interactions, real-time Q&A opportunities, insights into the surrounding community, virtual sessions spotlighting clubs, and translation services, among other things.”

One student out of California with a goal of studying cardiology suggested making virtual tours available in Spanish so that non-English-speaking parents could be more involved.

Another student who now hosts biweekly live virtual college tours at New York University said his group of “ambassadors” has had success combining real-time narration, a slide show, and a closely monitored chat section. He said that about 70 people attend each virtual session and tend to come from a wider range of backgrounds than participants on the in-person tours he also hosts. Saying that “virtual options are better at reaching first-generation students and students from low-income backgrounds,” he urged colleges to “keep this channel open.”

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