Experts: Go all in with Facebook for college admissions—or don’t bother

Two percent of colleges said they don’t use Facebook for admissions purposes.

Colleges and universities that don’t have the staff resources to consistently update an admissions-based Facebook page shouldn’t be on the site at all, social media experts said.

Varsity Outreach, an organization that documents higher education’s use of social networking, released a report Sept. 12 that shows a steady uptick in the number of schools using the world’s most popular social network to attract and engage prospective students.

Eighty-six percent of the 160 campuses surveyed said they use Facebook as an online admissions tool, up from 79 percent in 2011. The survey showed a sharp increase in colleges that target admitted students on Facebook: Eight in 10 colleges connect with recruits and admits, helping those who have already gained admittance to connect with other freshmen.

This year’s survey results also showed that college admissions offices are more willing to put considerable time into managing and monitoring their school’s Facebook admissions pages, posing and answering questions several times a day. Forty percent of respondents said their admissions officials now spend five or more hours managing the page, up from 30 percent last year.

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Mark Rothbaum, president of Varsity Outreach, said the pressure to keep up with social media has driven many small schools to create an admissions page, even if they don’t have time to keep up with an inevitable influx of student queries.

“If you don’t have the time to put into it, I would say a dormant [Facebook] presence is worse than no presence at all,” Rothbaum said. “The expectation is that responses will be immediate. If a student posts something on your wall and you don’t respond in 24 hours, they’re going to go somewhere else. … Students feel like this school isn’t the place to be. Right or wrong, that’s the impression. If you don’t have the manpower to maintain it, just don’t do it.”

Very few schools, according to the most recent survey data, are choosing the latter option. Only 2 percent of respondents said their campus did not use Facebook for admissions purposes.

Higher education’s most progressive admissions-based social media users closely track Facebook and Twitter analytics to see what works and what doesn’t in engaging prospective students and starting conversations between them, Rothbaum said.

Without keeping an eye on Facebook admissions strategies that work—such as having students find preferred roommates on the social site—colleges and universities are doomed to repeat mistakes every year.

“They can be smarter about what they’re doing each year when they understand what got people involved,” Rothbaum said, adding that the most successful schools mapped out Facebook activity spikes as they posted items, questions, and comments on the admissions page.

Varsity Outreach suggested colleges create Facebook Pages that counselors can manage, rather than personal profiles.

“It helps avoid the awkwardness of a student friending a counselor or vice versa,” the survey said. “And the potential of an inappropriate picture or post leading to much stiffer consequences than expected.”

The Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth in August released a study that indicates significant changes in recruiting tactics as higher education warms up to social media.

The newly released data show for the first time that using social media cuts costs for college recruiters, and as a result, 86 percent of surveyed schools plan to increase investments in these tools during the next year.

From November to May of the 2011-12 school year, researchers conducted 570 interviews with admissions officers at four-year undergraduate schools. Schools included in the survey sample were 22 percent public and 78 percent private, and represented a range of enrollment sizes and tuition costs.

“Social media is increasingly becoming the preferred way college-aged students obtain and absorb news today. Having a presence on social media outlets allows colleges to honestly be in the discussion when students are leveraging where to apply and enroll,” said Jeff Fuller, director of student recruitment at the University of Houston.