Dr. Nora Barnes gave me a heads up last night on the findings from her research on the growing use of social media by colleges and universities to recruit and research new applicants.
I met Dr. Barnes at the Society for New Communications Research Symposium in November, where she delivered the keynote address. The full findings of the report will be published in the Journal of New Communications Research, but the executive summary offers a nice look ahead.
What I found particularly striking was the growing use in higher ed of social media as a research tool, rather than as a form of outreach. In other words, while colleges and universities have for some time been reaching out to prospective applicants through social media (especially blogs), they are now increasingly using social media to get a finer-grained level of detail about applicants — especially those applying to highly competitive programs or scholarships.
The percentage that use “search engines” is higher (23%) than those who use “social media” (17%), but I imagine that that is mostly because “search engines” are the only way most people know how to search for blogs, facebook pages, YouTube videos, etc. I suspect that entering a prospective applicant (at the final round level — schools aren’t screening every student) into Google and scanning the first few pages is considered basic due diligence at this point.
At least I hope it is.
And I am going to bet that use of these tools will be higher still a year, two years from now.
So how will this change things, as more students become more educated about exactly who is looking at their online words and behaviors?
Just as the appearance of parents on Facebook changed how that tool is used by young people, the use of social media by colleges and universities will change it again.
I think it’s true that many students will do some purging and excising of their online content. But I also believe that many are already very savvy about their use of public social media, and about the way they present themselves there. Ambitious, college-bound students are already using their blogs and YouTube channels as ways to further distinguish themselves. They know these are online resumes of sorts. These students will be more relieved than startled that colleges will be reading their blogs, much like a PR person is glad when someone actually reads their press releases.
I wonder if schools will also modify their expectations of online behavior, and recognize that some lightheartedness is appropriate to the setting. (Of course offensive behavior and inappropriate posting will always be taken into consideration when evaluating students.)
But observers are themselves changed when they spend any amount of time in a different culture.
Perhaps the question is not, “How will this change how people use social media?” but “How will social media change college admissions?” And what impact will that have?
Check out the Society for New Communications Research’s Journal of New Communications Research for the full paper. Dr. Barnes will also present the findings through an upcoming webinar, and at the SNCR annual conference.