Enrollment Blog

How social media connects underrepresented students to college

by Emily Bauer

We sometimes forget the "social" in social media is more than tweets about TV shows and pictures of fun times on Instagram.

Being "social" is defined as relating to and being a part of institutions and cultural systems. In the same way, "social" media connects individuals and organizations.

And for underrepresented students, these connections can help get them to college.

We recently surveyed 5,580 prospective students about how they prefer to communicate with colleges and universities. Our findings suggest that underrepresented students are more likely to turn to social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram to learn about and interact with colleges. It seems social media helps fill information gaps in the college choice experience of underrepresented students.

Use social media to meet students and maintain relationships

Underrepresented students often have limited financial resources and less-robust support systems for their college quest. These students typically don’t fly around the country for college visits and often do not rely on their families or friends for information about higher education, perhaps because fewer members of their community have first-hand knowledge of how to choose and attend college.

Our research suggests that social media helps fill underrepresented students’ gaps in college information. For example, 27% of first-generation students in our survey initially encountered a favorite school via social media, whereas only 17% of non- first generation students initiated a relationship with a college via social media. Similar disparities exist between Hispanic/Latino (25%) and Caucasian (16%) students and between students from lower-income families (24%) and those from more privileged economic backgrounds (13%).

Once students establish a relationship on social media with a college, they can continue to interact with the school through "likes", "shares", and comments on content. The back-and-forth interaction of social media can begin to feel like conversations about college with an advisor or peer group of other college-bound students—which may be absent in many underrepresented students' daily lives. First-generation students are 7% more inclined to like a post and 5% more likely to share content from a school on Facebook than students whose parents went to college—highlighting the importance of social media in underrepresented student outreach.

Socialize your media to better serve students

Our findings highlight an opportunity for colleges and universities to better serve the underrepresented students they want in their entering classes. We encourage our partner institutions to craft social media outreach to appeal to—and engage—the students they wish to enroll.

My team and I suggest you carefully analyze the effectiveness of your current social media campaigns, being sure to parse which messages are read by whom and whether they result in subsequent shares, likes, and comments. Armed with this data, your staff can optimize your messages and give underrepresented students the information they need where, when, and how they are looking for it. Remember, social media is inherently interactive—a dynamic that helps to sustain students’ use and enthusiasm. Foster engagement with fresh content that appeals to the unique interests and needs of underrepresented students—an important first step in your institution’s broader effort to transform the college experience of these students.

I hope these practices will enable your school to exemplify the true meaning of “social”—connection—and bring you closer to students who depend on this modern form of media to inform their college choice.

Teenagers are online 9 hours a day. Are they receiving your message?

Students are more reachable than ever, yet their media habits are changing at dizzying rates. Fill out our digital capabilities diagnostic to evaluate how robust your digital recruitment capabilities are.

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