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Social media for retention: Are colleges missing opportunities?

How paying attention to what students are posting online can be used to help them stay in school
University Business, October 2013
(Getty Roy Scott) The best approaches to social media outreach involve more than reacting to students who broadcast the negative.
(Getty Roy Scott) The best approaches to social media outreach involve more than reacting to students who broadcast the negative.

When a student starts tweeting expletives about your institution for the whole world to potentially see, it’s probably time to find out the reason for the lash out and do some damage control.

Beverly Low, dean of first-year students at Colgate University in New York, reached out to one such student and ended up having three meetings with her. “They were meaningful conversations, too,” Low says, adding that the student was more likely to come and talk in person than vent on social media in the future.

Forming such connections can be the difference between a student persisting or separating. So campus leaders shouldn’t overlook the importance of keeping an eye on social media and following up on dropout situations that may be just waiting to happen.

(Related UBTech presentation: Exploring Today’s Mobile Technologies.)

Keeping the class

Students now use social media far more than email to communicate. Trying to prevent summer melt of class size via social media is a logical next step for enrollment and retention professionals. Alert administrators at Ithaca College in New York reassessed goals for their homegrown online community, IC Peers, when they realized how it was being used.

“The goal was to build affinity and improve yield,” says Eric Maguire, Ithaca’s vice president for enrollment and communication. While yield wasn’t influenced, the engagement data collected in IC Peers allowed administrators to better target which of two equally qualified students was more likely to enroll. “Thus was born our realization that it could be used for retention.”

Within IC Peers, accepted and prospective students can create affinity groups, ask questions, and find answers in previous discussion threads. The ability to find answers to common questions resulted in a drop in call volume to multiple offices that tend to hear from incoming students when they have questions, Maguire says.

Bonny Griffith, director of recruitment marketing, says that “what makes IC Peers so valuable to incoming students is our high level of service and deliberate investment in community-building activities.”

Colorado Technical University, an online and commuter school, has used social media to build its community over the summer as students wait to begin classes.

“The stitch-in-time is delicate; they might enroll but have several weeks before classes start,” says Melissa Balsan, director of social media and community. “It’s a ‘hurry up and wait’ time. So joining the communities keeps them engaged. We tell them they can share concerns and questions and receive unvarnished answers.”

Working around resource challenges

Some campus leaders are committing to their social media programs with community managers and encouraging faculty and staff to participate. But others are still treating social media more as an afterthought. All of this makes it even more difficult to ensure the platforms are being used to engage with individual students.

“There are missed opportunities,” says Corie Martin, manager of creative web services in the division of public affairs at Western Kentucky University. “A lot of what I hear is that a lack of resources—human, financial, and time—are to blame, but from my personal experience, it doesn’t take a huge team of people to experience success with social media outreach.”

She suggests finding a social media platform that works, and investing time in it for the greatest success. “Become a rock star at that medium,” says Martin, who is working on her Ph.D. with a focus on how social engagement online will improve enrollment and retention.

Once classes start, social media can help in monitoring how well students are settling in. “I can usually identify potential homesickness quickly,” says Low at Colgate.

For example, her antenna went up when she was monitoring hashtags and saw some student athletes tweeting about leaving their friends as they head to college. During an orientation session, she tracked them down and personally welcomed them to campus. One student later emailed her a thank you. Although she calls it a “little connection,” it probably made a big difference to the student feeling comfortable on campus.

Promoting persistence

The common wisdom is that engaged students are retained students, so it makes sense that social media would help with persistence as well. “Given the immediacy of social media, quicker response times improve student satisfaction and reduce the risk of attrition,” says Jason Soffer, a product manager at Campus Management.

Traditionally, students expressed frustrations to their dorm mates or in phone calls home. Now they broadcast them across social media—where schools can actually do something to address the issue. At Ithaca College, community managers monitor comments on official campus Facebook pages and scan Twitter for certain hashtags or campus mentions.

“We are actively listening for any students who are unhappy with their experience and try to reach out to them and rectify their situations on an individual basis,” says Molly Israel, director of communication at Ithaca College.

At Western Kentucky, monitoring has become a campuswide effort. “This year we are focusing more on retention and making sure that we don’t miss a single student who expresses a need for help,” says Martin. Student service representatives are encouraged to communicate with students directly via social media channels. Students know they can visit a group created for their own class year or the custom WKU Facebook community to get answers to their questions almost instantly, she says.

A proactive approach

The best approaches to social media outreach involve more than reacting to students who broadcast the negative.

“We want to prevent cognitive dissonance with students. They are adult learners and there are a lot of competitors out there,” says Drew Melendres, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management at Metropolitan State University in Minnesota. Posts will tout professors and programs. “The more students stay engaged and feel proud, the more likely they are to stay enrolled,” Melendres adds.

Balsan at Colorado Tech agrees that a sense of connection is as important for retention as it was for enrollment. “We realized that offering a thriving and growing sense of community was important to our students,” she says. “On Facebook, we focus around motivation, pride, and community.”

In addition to having official representatives, the school encourages current students and alumni to answer questions online. That helps deepen the relationships these students and alumni have with the institution as well.

Campus leaders encourage enrolled students to brag about milestones, such as making the dean’s list. “We send them an email acknowledging the milestone and give them a badge they can share on their social media. We can track that back and see comments from their family and friends,” she says.

Soffer of Campus Management notes that retention is not just about saving ‘at-risk’ students, but also about nurturing successful students. “Social media can quickly and easily create powerful messages that not only celebrate these students, but personalize what can be a very impersonal environment for a student who sits among thousands of peers in the school.”

Social media can also be used to guide students to campus services that can help them succeed in life. “I’d like them to start thinking about career services earlier,” says Melendres. “Students who are undeclared are more likely to drop out. If we can get them thinking about outcomes earlier, it will be better.”

But it’s not enough to just promote campus resources online, cautions Rachel Metscher, director of advocacy and communications for Hobsons. Establish objectives at the start of a social media campaign to effectively track changes in student behavior over time, she advises. For example, if social media is used to drive struggling students to tutoring centers or unhappy students to campus events, administrators could use a CRM or other system to track the center usage or event attendance to see if the campaign was working.

From online to in-person

Colgate’s Low is creating personal connections by using the public platforms to make herself approachable. For instance, she’ll tweet when she’s having lunch and invite students to join her. “We’re targeting students who might not usually come to the office,” she explains. “It’s the 20/80 rule. You see 20 percent of your students 80 percent of the time because they are either in trouble or did something amazing.”

In some cases, Low passes information from an online exchange to student ambassadors who can reach out to their peers about how they’re doing.

“There is a perception that the public nature of social media is not ideal for engaging in the personal nature of retention,” says Western Kentucky’s Martin. “Social media offers a place for transparency in higher education. Using the tools to reach out to students is a very powerful retention method. Social media can serve as an imperceptible conduit between students and universities.”

Because most interactions are taking place on social media platforms the campus doesn’t own, it can be tricky to transfer the information into a CRM or other tracking system, but it can be accomplished.

At CTU, community managers will send information gleaned from the Facebook wall to the ombudsman’s office to be logged and tracked. A recent campaign focused on alumni who were having trouble finding desirable employment, Balsan relates. The community manager reminded them of the availability of career coaches, but also forwarded their contact information. “That will activate a career coach to contact them,” she explains.

Another potential example might be a student posting a complaint about an instructor on the wall. Again, the community manager would respond, but also forward the information to an academic advisor who can intervene and help resolve the issue. “We make sure everyone knows the history of why the student is upset,” she says, adding that it might just be the student feeling crunched about a due date.

Much can be accomplished by having someone spend a few minutes each day responding to simple questions and directing students to the proper department, says Martin. “We ask students how we can help. They tell us.”

Martin adds, “If we don’t know the answer right off, we make the effort to find a human being in the office who can assist the student and we either provide that office with the student’s information or vice versa—usually both. Such simple communication, but so effective.”

Commit and plan

Campus leaders have known for years that a multipronged approach is needed for retention, and social media is another tool in their arsenal. However, it takes commitment and planning.

“We’re a good example of keeping an open mind,” says Maguire, of Ithaca College. “We built IC Peers with the goal of increasing yield, but that didn’t happen. We did realize it was good for retention. You have to respond to the data.”

But, advises Martin, “Simply building a page and putting it out there is not enough. Social media presences have to be a go-to place to connect with other students and to learn the latest news and information about the institution. This is achieved by active, frequent communication and moderator participation.”

Ann McClure is a former associate editor at University Business.