Social media: Colleges’ newest battlefield for students, alumni donations

Seventy percent of higher-ed officials say colleges should engage students using social media.
Seventy percent of higher-ed officials say colleges should engage students using social media.

Colleges’ unending campaign to attract more students and alumni donations has higher-education officials looking to two technologies that consume a growing chunk of people’s free time: social media and video games.

University admissions officers are fielding prospective students’ application questions on Facebook and keeping alumni up to date with multiple daily tweets that could grow campus coffers if graduates feel more connected to their alma maters.

Some colleges lure potential students with walking, talking digital characters, or avatars, that guide visitors through an application process that sometimes frustrates prospective students and results in hundreds of unfinished online applications.

Admissions and marketing officials at colleges nationwide said higher education has been slow to embrace social networking, in part because larger institutions thought a Facebook or Twitter presence might tarnish the campus’s prestige.

But over the past year, research universities and community colleges alike have brought their marketing message to the online forums that many students are constantly connected to using their iPhones, BlackBerries, and other smart phones.

“[University decision makers] don’t want to bring down the institution by participating in something that ends up being a flash in the pan or makes us look silly,” said Aaron Ragan-Fore, a web communications editor in the University of Oregon’s office of admissions who lobbied campus officials to create social media accounts and appeal to prospective students who spend hours every day on Facebook.

“There was an appropriate lag, in some sense, so we didn’t sign on to something … that was just a random collection of ephemera,” he said.

Oregon now has 860 “fans,” or Facebook users—many of them prospective applicants—who can follow university updates in their personalized Facebook news feed. Most applicants post their questions on the university’s public wall, like Traci Lewis, who asked why her online application status was listed as “incomplete.”

“What should i do. cuz i sent everything in. when the status says incomplete does that mean i did not get in to oregon?” Lewis wrote March 30. The Oregon admissions office suggested she call the admissions office’s 800 number for clarification. Another prospective student following the exchange told Lewis he had called, and wrote that he “called and they said it takes them at least [a] few days to actually get … through all the mail.”

Other applicants who follow Oregon on Facebook had questions about foreign-language requirements, SAT scores, grade point averages, and financial packages. Most queries were answered by an admissions staff member within a few hours of posting.

“I want them to see we’re there and we can talk,” Ragan-Fore said. “And we’re always looking to generate conversation.”

Admissions officers should find a middle ground between inactivity and overactivity on Facebook, experts said. Too many posts and personal messages can drive potential students away, and infrequent posts risk losing students’ interest.

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