Do prospective students use Facebook in their college search?

Last month, some students from Ohio University (who we’d been working with on a few social media related projects) gathered a group of high-schoolers for a focus group to learn more about the role social media played in their college search.

The students asked a dozen high school juniors and seniors from Ohio the following questions:

  • Do you use social networking sites? Which ones?
  • Have you begun your college search yet?
  • Do you follow colleges on Facebook?
  • Did you follow any of the colleges you applied to on Facebook?
  • What’s your biggest fear of attending college?


Not surprisingly, each of the students used Facebook and two or three said they used Twitter. They had all begun their college search; the seniors had already applied to their select schools and juniors were still trying to figure out which schools they were going to apply to.

Interestingly, when asked if any of them followed colleges on Facebook only a few said they had, but did so solely because of collegiate sport affinity. When the seniors were asked if they followed any schools they applied to not one of them had done so.”Why would I?”, a few of the students responded. Although some mentioned they had been invited to check out the school on Facebook, none did.

Understanding User Behavior and Needs

Shortly after getting this focus group feedback, I was discussing the importance of user needs with one of my mentors – according to him, “every successful product, project or company starts with a great understanding of your user needs”. This is actually the first step we go through in our design process and it should be the first step of any marketing initiative.

The inspiration behind this post actually came from a blog post (from someone outside higher ed) which stated: “Facebook marketing is a great way for higher education institutions to increase applications in a social and engaging manner.” Assumptions like these drive me up the wall because that’s not how most students want to interact.

What the Research Says

Research from the 2011 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations shows that 27% of prospective students have checked out a school on Facebook. Some of the students we talked to were afraid admissions offices might find them on Facebook – they didn’t want to interact with colleges they’d applied to at all on Facebook, and they certainly didn’t want to like the school’s page.

Once a student applies and is accepted into a school, however, it’s a different story. When students feel an emotional bond to a school, they want to do everything they can to learn more about what their future could hold at college. We’re working with some partners on developing a more comprehensive social media and student behavior survey, so stay tuned for more research.

What we can tell so far is that maximizing your social communities at the point of acceptance is highly recommended to improve yield, but probably not particularly effective at generating more applications.

What have you seen at your university? Are you seeing increased application conversions from social media sites or are you focusing your efforts on maximizing yield at the point of acceptance?

  • Mrosich

    Facebook and college admission is like answering the age old question “What came first, the chicken or the egg?  Colleges want to believe that students are using Facebook since it becomes another tool outside email to reach students. Students want to use Facebook since it is a medium they are familiar with but they also don’t want their personal info shared with prospective colleges.
    Colleges wanting to reach students on Facebook is understandable. With the average student receiving hundreds of emails from colleges, it is a daunting task to stand out among all those competing schools. Perhaps college believe”if they build it  (a school fan page) they, the students, will come. Students who want to use alternative means to impress a college in the hope of gaining their attention will resort to any method.This includes sending DVD’s to colleges highlighting their accomplishments. While students may not use Facebook to learn about colleges, they most certainly will use to to network with college admission officers. As far as the issue of not revealing personal information, the more clever students have worked this out also: a second Facebook page just for that purpose.
    Students looking for an edge on the competition will never change. Colleges looking for a new way to reach out to students and recruit will never change. Facebook in the college admission process is here to stay. Mike Rosich, Director of Social Media,

    • Brandon Croke

      Thanks for the comment Mike. Do you have any numbers to show what percentage of students or schools are using Facebook to network directly with admission officers?

      Although there may be a few outliers, I’d say on average that’s not the case. Our focus groups showed the culture of Facebook for HS’ers is “it’s a place for my friends” and college admissions is an “official, structured, process for my future.” Yes Facebook and admissions is here to stay, but schools need to focus on giving students what they want and increasing objectives that important for their school. (not just setting up a Page and trying to get likes)

  • Brad

    “students asked a dozen high school juniors and seniors from Ohio” – That’s hardly enough for solid conclusions…

    • Brandon Croke

      Thanks for the comment Brad. You’re right, these aren’t solid conclusions. That’s why this focus group was part of our initial research before we do our full out student attitudes survey. 

      It’s worth noting that many other thought-leaders in the space responded back to the article with “sure, we know social is about maximizing yield” – Lougan Bishop even shared his presentation he made earlier this year on the topic.

      Have you seen different results? We’d love to see/share the data.

  • Nsaffirm, Greg Markovich

    Brad and others,

    Yes, the focus group is small, however, focus is the “working word”.  Perhaps focus groups in other geographical locals or social-economical may be different, however, essentially the data-mined will be similar from the focus groups by distribution pattern.  Of perhaps more interest are focus groups of “minority”, First generation college (see Suder Foundation).  Professionally have conducted focus groups at over 50 “small colleges” and found results (focus fairly similar).  Being the creator of the “original” Student-Centered Management Information System (circa 1975) and having worked with Noel-Levitz on their early products/projects one thing I learned is that each student is an individual.  We recruit one-by-one and retain one-by-one.  Great “Social Media” or Facebook goodies will enrich the one-on-one experience.  Using Focus Groups gives us “Insights” on the “generic” DNA of our potential students.  I have just “finished” working with At-Risk students (only 1,000) all different and all the same (their heart, soul and mind).  We professionals need to “up-date” (professional development) in addition to Social Media (a means) on the “new Intelligences (the why).  Information for improved Recruitment-Involvement-Engagement means increased Student Success and the world will be a better place.

  • Pingback: What’s happening with Facebook in College Admissions? (infographic) | Inigral Insights

  • Erik

    This lines up with what I’ve heard from freshman and sophomore college students. Very few of them looked at a college on Facebook when deciding where to apply. The website was a top influencer, particularly virtual tours. They also looked at what enrolled students were saying on various review sites.

    A few of them viewed college Facebook accounts as another marketing tool and didn’t trust them to get an unbiased feel for the school. Only after they enrolled did they use it to stay in touch with campus news and events.

  • Brandon Croke

    Thanks for the comment Erik. I think too often administrators mis-interpret when students spend a lot of time on a given website (Facebook) this will mean they are going to do things like search for colleges on the same site. Curious to see how this will change over time.