Colleges & Universities Adopt Social Media to Recruit & Research Potential Students; Outpace Corporate Adoption of New Communications Tools & Technologies

SNCR Senior Fellow and Research Fellow Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes & Eric Mattson Lead First Longitudinal Study of Social Media Adoption by the Higher Education Sector

Colleges and universities are using social media to recruit and research prospective students, and it is becoming increasingly clear that online behavior can have important consequences for young people. This was one of the key findings of a new research study, “Social Media and College Admissions: The First Longitudinal Study” conducted by Dr. Nora Ganim Barnes, Ph.D., Senior Fellow and Research Chair of the Society for New Communications Research and Chancellor Professor of Marketing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Eric Mattson, CEO of Financial Insite Inc., a Seattle-based research firm.

The new study represents one of the first statistically significant, longitudinal studies on the usage of social media by college admissions offices. The study compares adoption of social media between 2007 and 2008 by the admissions offices of all the four-year accredited institutions in the United States. Like the 2007 study, the 2008 study is the result of a nationwide telephone survey of four-year accredited institutions. Both studies examined the familiarity with, usage of, and attitude toward social media by the admissions offices at US colleges and universities. The findings are based on 536 interviews with college admissions officers. To date, this is the most comprehensive study on American institutions of higher education and their use of social media in their admissions activities.

Key Findings include:

• There has been significant growth in familiarity with, adoption of, and importance to mission of social media over one year ago.

• Adoption has grown by 24% in one year: 61% in 2007 as compared with 85% in 2008. Usage increased for every social media type studied.

• Adoption is being driven by admissions departments’ recognition of the increasing importance of social media in today’s world.

• Colleges and universities are outpacing U.S. corporate adoption of social media tools and technologies (13% of the Fortune 500 and 39% of the Inc. 500 currently have a public blog, while 41% of college admissions departments have blogs).

• Social networking is the tool most familiar to admissions officers, with 55% of respondents claiming to be “very familiar with it” in the first study and 63% in 2008.

• A significant number of admissions officers use search engines (23%) and social networks (17%) to research prospective students. They use these tools to verify information or research students who are candidates for scholarships or entry into high-demand programs with limited spaces. In all these cases the intent is to protect the school from potential embarrassment. There were no reports of checking every applicant to an institution. Online research appears to be more of a precaution at this point or a source of additional information for critical decision making.

• In addition to social networks, usage of YouTube has also increased substantially. Video is now being used to deliver virtual tours of campuses, virtual visits to the dorms, and sample lectures from the faculty.

• 78% of private schools have blogs, versus 28% of public schools, and 50% of schools with undergraduate populations of less than 2,000 have blogs.

• 40% of institutions not currently using social media plan to start a blog.

• Nearly 90% of admissions departments feel that social media is “somewhat to very important” to their future strategy.

“Those graduating high school today have been exposed to the Internet since childhood. They are constantly connected — plugged into digital music devices, cell phones, the Internet, instant messenger and social networks, perhaps all on the same device. This world of interactivity and hyper-communication has fundamentally changed how teenagers and young adults receive, process, and act on information,” stated Mattson.

“Social media have undeniably changed the landscape of college admissions,” added Barnes. “The value of these social media tools for college admissions offices cannot be underestimated. As more and more young people spend increased amounts of time communicating online, an institutional presence will become mandatory. “

The full executive summary of the study is available for download.

In addition, Dr. Barnes will publish a paper based on the findings in the upcoming issue of the Society for New Communications Research’s Journal of New Communications Research and will present the findings via a webinar and at the Society for New Communications Research’s annual conference.