Go back two weeks and you’ll find Ivan Peña, the Merced College Dean of Student Equity and Success, knee deep in Fall 2020 student registration preparations.

He paused to chat and thought back to the last time Merced College did a full registration push.

Then he chuckled.

“If I had said in January, ‘Hey, our next registration is going to be completely virtual,’ everyone would have said, ‘There’s no way you’re going to pull that off!’” Peña said.

Not so fast.

Merced College did pull it off.

The College had to ditch its annual face-to-face event, but completed virtual registration—online only—two times in July.

Reality hit when the COVID-19 pandemic halted on-campus operations in mid-March. Schools coast-to-coast shifted to online everything.

By late July, Peña and his team had registered 631 students.

“Dr. Peña has done a fantastic job creating ways for students to enroll while reproducing the face-to-face experience and get students ready for classes,” Merced College Vice President of Student Services Michael McCandless said.

“His whole team was so committed to it. … They’ve exceeded expectations.”

GENESIS

Five months ago, McCandless reached out to Peña after the school closed its doors to discuss registration.

Could they register students in person while social distancing? No. The numbers they usually attract would make that impossible. They’d have to discourage people from coming to campus all at once, something they would never normally do.

They quickly realized they should mimic what instructional, counseling and tutoring operations had done to quickly go online.

Peña and staff started tinkering with Zoom. They talked to Director of Student Success Tomasia Drummond, who helped move tutoring online, and reached out to Bakersfield Community College to find out what it learned after their own virtual registration earlier this year.

EXECUTION

The Virtual Extreme Registration event began when students logged into Zoom. In a primary waiting room, staff hosts checked student IDs and made sure people could use the chat feature.

Then students entered one of five breakout rooms to either complete an application, go through orientation, visit a counselor to discuss which classes to take, register for classes, or speak to a financial aid staffer.

There was another virtual waiting room, where students who finished a step early, could watch videos about other programs. Another host answered questions before students went to their next breakout room.

“The second waiting room really helped,” Peña said. “We didn’t waste students’ time.”

Peña’s group learned after the first, mid-July event that students wouldn’t wait longer than 5-10 minutes between steps. They fixed that glitch, and reduced wait times, by staging two sessions simultaneously for the second event held on July 29.

In addition to new students who completed virtual extreme registration, the outreach team registered even more students by calling people between sessions.

For students who needed an appointment, the outreach team dangled the chance to win a new laptop. Five students, of 738 total with RSVPs, who also completed a survey after the event, won computers purchased by the Merced College Foundation.

“It used to be, ‘Come one, come all’ and no RSVPs for the in-person event,” Peña said. “We were a little surprised how strongly students took to the virtual version.”

The effort allowed Merced College to keep pace in enrollment. The goal was to register 40+ full-time equivalent students (FTEs), a number that determines state funding. It managed 40.79.

It’s a great result knowing community colleges fear dropping enrollment amidst the pandemic.

Merced College has a steeper climb operating in one of the poorest counties in California. Not having WiFi or a computer prevented some from registering, Peña said. Forget being able to learn.

“It’s been a real eye-opener,” he said. “It reminded us that we can never stop looking for ways to support students.”

NEXT

McCandless said virtual registration will not go away once the pandemic wanes.

“We’ll do our face-to-face event, and the virtual event, and keep the live chat for everyone who uses it,” he said. “We are more innovative. We can address so many student needs when we’re working on multiple fronts.”

Merced College’s upcoming transfer fair, for students going to four-year schools, will use the same process. Peña felt proud seeing the campus work to create virtual registration. Student services staffed the events. The instruction division identified classes to promote. The foundation and marketing office promoted the event. The research division identified who to market it to. The IT staff put out all tech fires.

“At first, we were just figuring out ways to use Zoom,” Peña said. “Now we’re sharing best practices and helping students. No matter how many challenges we faced, everything team members have given us—work, ideas, solutions—has been top quality.”