How Do We Make Social Media In Higher Ed More Awesome?

In a guest post published today on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Head Count” admissions and enrollment blog (for which I myself have written), Jack Baworowsky, VP of enrollment management at Dominican University, warns his colleagues that it “is not a question of if but when will there be a major shift in the way we think about student recruitment.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the way we currently think of student recruitment, Baworowsky provides a description, which I’ll corroborate from my own experience. Right now, the primary way that colleges recruit large numbers of applicants is to buy the names and contact information of students who take the SAT or ACT (or their associated PSAT and PLAN) for students who match particular parameters: score bands, indicated areas of interest, and so forth. Colleges then mail large numbers of things to these applicants: brochures, viewbooks, newsletters, and the other manifold forms which a dead tree can take. They do this in the desperate hope that a (relatively) small number of these students will like the dead trees forms so much that they choose to apply.

It’s a funnel, conversion model of marketing, basically, and it sucks. It sucks because it’s imprecise and inefficient. It sucks because its environmental impact caused someone to lift the Lorax away. For a long time now people have been saying there must be a better way to do this, but no one has totally figured out what that might be.

Baworowsky believes he has a “big, scary answer”: social media. Social media is big and scary for college admissions because, as Baworowsky says, it’s not the turf where most enrollment managers feel most comfortable. He spends the balance of the article arguing why these managers should – indeed must – become comfortable with social media.

Readers of the Civic blog may laugh here and wonder how and why someone could be uncomfortable with social media in anno domini 2013. But when I began working at MITAdmissions I was utterly shocked by the widespread terror which social media inspired in college admissions. When I presented on “Advanced Social Media Strategies” at the 2011 NACAC conference, most of the question from the audience were not about advanced social media at all, but rather embryonic social media: how to justify to one’s bosses that social media would even be worth trying out, much as Pamela Wright had to do at NARA. I used to joke that, although MITAdmissions was ten years behind industry in our technology, we were ten years ahead of the rest of higher ed, which put us in a comparatively good position.

So when Baworowsky urges his colleagues to embrace social media he’s not merely speaking to the choir already assembled. He’s trying to urge the huddled parishioners to come inside the damn church already and start singing. It’s in this context that his post must be read and understood, and in its context I applaud and support his effort.

The trouble begins when Baworowsky starts selecting his hymns. He argues that social media can supplement the inefficient funnel model with “a more innovative approach that uses social media” to build relationships with prospective students. Ok, sure. But the problem is that all of Baworowsky’s proposed solutions – borrowed apparently from a white paper by a publications consultant – don’t make much sense.

The first set of solutions could be best characterized as increasing interactions as an end in itself. It’s an approach I call “Likes for the sake of Likes,” and it absolutely dominates thinking about social media in higher ed. For this, Baworowsky writes, “strategies include getting students to ‘like’ your institution, embedding a mini site including video within Facebook, and opening a Facebook virtual campus store.”

One immediately apparent problem with these solutions is that they don’t actually offer a strategy: they offer a goal (more Likes) and two tactics (video, campus store). Why you’d value this goal or employ these tactics isn’t entirely clear. Why would you embed a mini site including video within Facebook and not just posting the video directly to your page? Why are you creating a video in the first place? Is it video qua video, or does the medium of video best carry the message you are trying to send? Similarly, does this virtual campus store sell physical gifts or virtual gifts? It’s not a priori obvious which, because Facebook supports both, and either answer would entail radically different marketing campaigns targeted at radically different audiences and use cases.

But even if the tactics were clear, why would you be using them? What’s the strategy here? What’s the point of Likes beyond Likes sake? What’s the theory of change and value?

The second set of solutions Baworowsky proposes involve getting students “engaged” with the college on Facebook. He describes how his own office has slightly modified the call to action in the brochure sent to students in the benighted funnel: to take a picture with the mailed brochure in a place that is “dynamic” to them. This, according to Baworowsky, increases engagement, which, like Likes, seemingly bootstraps itself to the higher plane where it is its own reward.

I’ve lightly mocked these solutions for their epistemic incoherence. But the more profound problem with them is that they expose a fundamental misunderstanding of why and how the college-aged population actually uses Facebook (and other social media which remain curiously unaddressed in the article). I have a very strong hunch, supported by my own experiences in MITAdmissions, that students are not very responsive to Facebook campaigns “pushed” by college admissions offices in part because they conceptualize Facebook as a place to hang out with their friends. They encounter advertisements on Facebook, but, like mall billboards and kiosks, these are a bug, not a feature; a cost of doing business, and one not readily repaid.

Baworowsky refers to social media as the “telephone” for this generation, and because he intends it as a reference to the supposed fixity of technology it becomes clear that he’s more focused on the formal characteristics of the tool than its norms of use. To take his example as an example: a telephone affords calling people. Teenagers call each other. It does not necessarily follow that it would be smart for colleges to start cold-calling teenagers! Nor would Baworowsky likely ever advocate cold-calls because, as someone who grew up with telephones, he natively understands that particular communities use particular technologies within particular normative constraints.

Baworowsky can be forgiven for not natively understanding Facebook. He foregrounds his ignorance as a weakness; I don’t particularly enjoy calling him on it. I really do support using social media well in higher ed and admissions – but you have to use it well. I’m all for learning a new language, but sometimes it’s better to use an interpreter, and colleges are full of young people who do have the native experience higher ed administrators lack. There are brilliant ethnographers working in this field who spend their careers carefully studying and explaining how young people use social media: had Baworowsky read danah boyd’s masterful dissertation, or even a good summary, I don’t think he would be thinking about social media in the same way.

I began this blog post by saying that I agreed with Baworowsky for challenging the conventional wisdom about social media in higher ed. But the thing is: that conventional wisdom is being forced to change already. Higher ed administrations are congenitally reactionary. They’ll eventually be dragged along kicking and screaming. Baworowsky has staked out a leading, but thoroughly safe, position.

The much more fundamental challenge is figuring out how to get higher ed to improve the quality and speed of its reactions. When higher ed begins, inexorably, to change, how do we make sure it changes as well as possible? There are intelligent, well-intentioned people across higher ed who, like Baworowsky, are really trying to do the right thing, but failing miserably for lack of the right framework and inputs. How do we change that?

This, I think, is a challenge within consideration for Civic. Higher ed is an institution, and we’ve always been concerned with how institutions change, which is to say how they change well or change poorly. One of our goals has been to try to figure out how to make them manage change better, by which I mean held to higher standards of both efficiency and ethics.

Here I must profess my own ignorance. I don’t have all the answers for how to improve higher ed’s change cycle. I think they probably involve more empathy and less fixity; more mixed methods research and less industry consultants. Beyond that I too am navigating without a map, but I think it’s important to try and sketch one out. We’ve focused a lot of our efforts and attention on institutions of government and journalism. Higher ed, with all its often superb intentions and subpar implementations, is another deserving subject of our attention and, perhaps, improvement.