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Can Facebook Doom a College Application?

A case for engaging higher education-minded students via purpose networks
University Business, Jul 2011

In our wired, social media-saturated world, many of us are connected to family and friends on Facebook and to business colleagues and other professionals via LinkedIn. These connections are undeniably meaningful and beneficial to each of us personally, and potentially, professionally.

But what about networks that may exist for gaining access to a deeper, more sophisticated level of expertise, information sharing, timely guidance, or shared interests? The implications could be huge for those of us in the education space.

That’s where purpose networks come in. While a social network is made up of people you know, a purpose network is made up of people who connect around a purpose. Both enable user-to-user connections, user-to-user searching capabilities, user-to-user permissions management, user-to-user relationship management, etc. However, a purpose network environment, unlike a social network, restricts the activities within its environment to the “purposeful” interactions that the environment was set up to facilitate and produce. Purpose networks typically organize around a single user and work toward the achievement of that user’s purposeful goal--completing college, searching for a college, picking the right courses, exploring career options.

A growing number of post-secondary institutions are using purpose networks within their own environment. Progressive universities are capitalizing on these platforms by creating focused, intentional online purpose networks to facilitate their institutional goals. In a college student purpose network, universities seek to instill and provide platforms to support institutional learning outcomes. College student purpose networks, unlike social networks (such as MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook), intentionally create the academic and social communities essential for university life. They are bi-directional communicative platforms, organized around process steps and exploration of specific opportunities or exposures. Such networks go far above and beyond email as a means of communication.

But what about higher education-minded high school students, or education-minded students who don’t know college is an option?

At the intersection of high school careers ending and college careers beginning, exposure and connections matter more than ever. Students are trying to find colleges and colleges are trying to find students, and neither may be going about it in the most effective way. More and more college admissions personnel are wandering through the online halls of Facebook for active recruiting and vetting of potential prospects.

No high school student (nor his or her parent) wants their college dream derailed by an inappropriate (or perceived to be inappropriate) Facebook posting or photo. In today's interconnected world, a poor choice on a social network or a poor portrayal of one student by another may be seen by college admission officials, and can adversely affect the student’s potential college plans. An admissions officer at Harvard recently indicated that she “absolutely” factors in an applicant’s Facebook presence in making recruitment decisions. There have also been reports of college applicants getting rejected because of how they behaved on social networking sites. The same is true for employers who check out a prospective employee on Facebook or Myspace before making a hiring decision.

Fortunately, high school students and college admissions officers now have a choice besides abstaining from the internet entirely. Students can separate the "business" of college and career selection from the "pleasure" of their online social networking activity. And they can hold colleges and employers accountable to not mixing their business with pleasure either. To do so, students need to have a college and career-planning purpose network that operates externally--not just internally--to the post-secondary environment.

We recommend that high school students create distinctly different online environments to manage their interactions with college admission officers, teachers, counselors, coaches, mentors, and employers versus their social interactions with friends, classmates and relatives. For students, it is critical that they have a strong support system to help them learn about post-high school graduation options. Teachers and counselors who should be significant parts of this support system are actively discouraged, if not forbidden, to connect to students via traditional social networking sites. And for employers, there is some question as to potential liabilities that could result from their screening job candidates via social networks. So the challenge is to find a way for colleges to reach students in a targeted fashion, and for students to be able to reach colleges (and potential future employers) and access their support system around their purposeful objectives.

Fortunately, purpose networks for students and colleges are beginning to grow more popular. Their purpose is to put the student at the center of his or her college and career planning, create a support network around them, and then use reliable data to expose them and make introductions to potential post-secondary institutions and/ or employers.

By bringing students and colleges together in this way (as well as counselors, educators, parents, coaches, mentors and potential employers), purpose networks have effectively leveled the playing field for all of those who use them, providing access to timely, relevant information and expertise. For the student, it’s no longer just about his or her own personal connections or the limitations of his or her high schools connections. Rather, each student has the benefit of thousands of educators, counselors, and college admissions professionals’ collective realms of experience and expertise.

In the long run, purpose networks have the ability to expose students to more colleges, more employers, and more options (and vice versa), without the limitations of the inefficient information streams that currently connect most students to these opportunities.

In the education space, purpose networks should be built to protect a student’s identity and proprietary information. Users’ activity should be restricted to the facilitation of advancing a student’s education and career planning objectives, and allowing students to build a support network around them, interacting with their teachers, counselors, coaches, admissions officers, employers, and mentors in a safe and productive environment.

More and more students and colleges around the country are beginning to use purpose networks to connect more efficiently with the goal of building deeper, more informed relationships.

In one recent example, students registered within a purpose network were able to identify colleges and/or college characteristics that were of interest to them. Miami-Dade College then used this information to introduce their institution and then seek a connection with more than 100 students who had expressed interest in schools with characteristics similar to those of Miami-Dade College. Within 48 hours, approximately 85 percent of those students responded.

So, instead of trolling the halls of Facebook, or spending a lot of money buying students’ names and contact information to then spend even more money on direct mail/email pieces that aren’t properly targeted, colleges now have a way to seek out and introduce their institutions to students on an individual and customized basis.

These interactions allow schools to build an online relationship between themselves and the student. Purpose networks give students a way to market themselves to potential colleges. When not enough information about students is available early enough in the process, colleges can end up playing a numbers game, making the process impersonal, expensive, exhausting, and ineffective. In addition, geographic restrictions may leave many desirable students overlooked.

In our information age, purpose networks are a critical resource in higher education for providing colleges with access to an environment of validated student data and the opportunity to connect with students from middle school on throughout their college and career-planning process. Colleges can communicate with students in their desired format, including email, text messaging, and notifications into their social media environments. Students can also proactively connect to colleges that interest them. This gives colleges valuable insight into which students are interested in them before the application season begins; or--even better--at a time when they can help inform more students that college is an option for them to pursue. The end result is a cost-effective and efficient recruitment process that is focused on driving student success throughout high school and college.

Purpose networks can provide students with a forum for creating their profile for higher education opportunities as well as internships, and for career options down the road. Today’s employers face multiple challenges while developing sustainable, qualified talent. And colleges must increasingly focus, as do high schools, on ensuring that their students are on track to finish school with a post-graduation goal in mind. For employers, the cultivation of an informed and qualified talent pool is critical.

For example, as baby boomers approach retirement, labor shortages are expected, particularly within fields requiring science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skill sets. Employers who explore innovative ways to identify and connect with prospective employees will be poised to win this inevitable “war for talent.” Upon entering a purpose network, employers can actively create their own recruitment pipeline by developing early relationships and guiding students to obtain the necessary skills. By explaining the importance of math and science to middle and high school students, while continuing to build relationships with them, employers can effectively court students throughout their college process. Purpose networks allow employers to connect with interested students earlier and from a wider distribution of high schools and colleges, resulting in an expanded base from which to draw and inform on the importance of math and science curriculum decisions.

Ultimately, using social networks to connect high school students to colleges and employers can lead to a mismatch and misrepresentation, not to mention an access barrier, whereby students are limited to the network strength of their friends and/or to the neighborhood or high school that they attended. But these connections are not social, so a social network is not the best tool. Nor should we continue to limit student opportunities to their immediate social networks. These connections should be purposeful, so a purpose network is the more appropriate tool. It is also a tool that allows students to build a support network around them, become exposed to qualified opportunities, and break down the barriers of geography and/or inefficient school-to-college or college-to-employer feeder networks.

Craig Powell is CEO and Founder of ConnectEDU. Learn more at