For colleges, social media no longer optional

LinkedIn has seen the largest increase in usage among colleges.

There won’t be big gains in the number of campuses using social media next year, according to two researchers who say every college and university they studied has already hopped aboard the social networking bandwagon.

Only six in 10 colleges had an official social media presence during the 2007-08 academic year, according to the report from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s Center for Marketing Research.

In 2009, 85 percent of university admissions offices were using social media like Twitter and Facebook. That number rose to 100 percent during the 2010-11 school year.

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Communicating with current and prospective students through popular social media platforms is no longer reserved for tech-savvy schools trying to show teenagers and 20-somethings that the campus is in touch with technology trends, according to the research, conducted by Ava Lescault, a senior researcher at UMass-Dartmouth, and Nora Ganim Barnes, a chancellor professor at the university.

Instead, social networking is for campuses that want to maintain and grow enrollment numbers.

“Their involvement with technology exceeds any other generation and presents an enormous challenge for those targeting this hyper-connected group,” Lescault and Barnes wrote.

For campus officials, “the competition for these students is fierce and survival ultimately depends on engaging them through the use of social media and new communications tools. … The goal is clearly to reach and engage those tech savvy young people who may be making at least initial decisions about a school based on its online presence.”

Facebook remains the most common use of social media in higher education, with 98 percent of institutions using the site, up from 87 percent last year.

Twitter use among colleges has seen one of the sharpest spikes, according to the research, spiking from 59 percent last year to 84 percent this year.

LinkedIn, a social network reserved mostly for business professionals, saw the largest gains in higher education this year. Nearly half of colleges surveyed said they used LinkedIn for official purposes, a marked increase from 16 percent last school year.

Menachem Wecker, founder of the Association for Social Media and Higher Education, said establishing social media presence has become a common goal on campuses, but the management of Facebook and Twitter accounts is too often farmed out to a small group of staffers who don’t share information with other departments, officials, and faculty members.

“Unless that person or team is providing regular social media alerts and updates to the larger community, there is a missed opportunity,” Wecker said. “Social media, at least in my experience, helps keep us engaged, humble, and up-to-date in a frightfully fast-evolving 24/7 news cycle. Schools that don’t buy in to the game do so at their own peril.”

Wecker, a former writer for the George Washington University’s online daily news service, said he would monitor “the GW brand aggressively,” scanning social sites for mentions of the school by prospective students.

When Wecker reached out to the prospective student on Facebook or Twitter, the student often said GW had been the only school to respond to his online postings.

“I am pretty surprised that most schools don’t seem to be playing any kind of offensive game in the social media space, and many won’t even respond to messages sent to them, unless they are glowing endorsements,” he said.

Establishing a presence on each of the major social media websites, the researchers said, confirms that admissions and recruitment officers will use each platform to scrutinize perspective students.

“It is clear that online behavior can have important consequences for young people and that these tools can, and will, be utilized by others to make decisions about them,” Ganim Barnes and Lescault wrote.

The percentage of school officials keeping an eye on what’s being said about their institution on the internet is lower than the researchers expected.

About half of colleges surveyed in 2007 said they monitored the web “for buzz, posts, conversations, and news” about their campus. Today, that number stands at 68 percent, or 5 percent lower than it was in 2009.

“Given the ease with which monitoring can be done, it is surprising that all schools are not monitoring online buzz about their institutions,” they wrote.

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