Facebook and Twitter were initially used at higher education institutions mainly to connect students to one another. The presence of social media soon grew to become a part of institutions’ business strategies. Through tailored marketing, recruitment and public relations strategies, social networks advertised a school’s presence. Now, each site’s ability to lure social interaction between prospective students and administration has begun the process of enabling a rather effortless transition for college students, particularly underrepresented students.
For underserved students, one of the most plaguing issues is affording and accessing college, as the lack of resources has been a perpetual struggle. Social networking, society’s most transformative and interactive tool, hosts applications that bring complex and inaccessible resources to all students. Founded on the campuses of higher education institutions, social media sites are incorporating a mixture of entertainment, interaction and guidance to the college admissions and completion processes.
“In using Facebook, there are no costs to students for using it, and, as a platform, Facebook is something that students are already using, so schools are beginning to — but [they] also strive to further leverage the technology to deliver key messages and information that they want students to have,” says Alexandra Bernadotte, founder and CEO of Beyond 12, an organization that uses technology to bridge communication between secondary and higher education administration in order to graduate more underserved college students.
The technologically-based organization has relied heavily on Facebook and other tools to offer informative resources, especially for low-income, first-generation and minority students. For such students, who oftentimes fall under the umbrella of underserved students, the challenge has been inadequate academic preparation, but, most important, it has been a lack of financial literacy in the financial aid process.
“Students are really having a difficult time trying to navigate through the rather complicated financial aid maze,” Bernadotte says.
As a result, Bernadotte created an interactive tool, used on the Facebook platform, to explain complex financial processes into simple, layman’s terms. The tool, referred to as the Student Engagement Site, utilizes Facebook’s discussion forum to communicate the financial aid process by allowing dialogue between students and professionals in regard to the college aid process. The site also provides sample copies of financial aid appeal letters. Not only are students exposed to easier financial literature, but also, the interactive tool analyzes a student’s two- to four-year budget so students can better manage “course-taking patterns.”
“Oftentimes, we find that underserved students are typically [bogged] down with managing their time at jobs, schools and applying for more financial aid, so this feature allows them to assess which set of courses they can afford and better manage the time and money that they spend on college,” Bernadotte says.
Newer applications and features of interactive sites have eliminated costly fees for textbooks and tuition. At best, the social platforms have surfaced information regarding higher education success, which oftentimes is buried in complex content. Perhaps that’s why colleges and universities have increased their reliance on social media to more than 90 percent, according to a study conducted by the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.
Used as the hub for higher education guidance, College Board also uses a Facebook application that communicates the college process for students, specifically targeting first-generation students. The application, titled “You Can Go,” uses an interactive navigation system, explaining why students should consider college, and provides success stories of college graduates. Once a student has filled out the appropriate information regarding his/her circumstance, that student can opt to post his/her “pledge” to fellow social media sites Twitter, Pinterest and LinkedIn. The premise of sharing the pledge allows for student users to interact with similar experiences, providing a network for those unfamiliar with the college process to better navigate it.
College Summit, a veteran organization that helps close the gap for low-income students in higher education, played a significant role in helping organizations like College Board and Beyond 12 develop Facebook applications for prospective underrepresented students. Beginning with a “Hackathon,” supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, education leaders gathered and were challenged to build an application, available on the Facebook platform, that would help low-income students navigate more easily through the college process. Student representatives from College Summit assessed each organization’s and leader’s application by testing the tools on the user end at the actual Facebook site.
CEO Keith Frome says, “Our insight in using technology and the power of social networking was to uphold this peer-to-peer communication and use colleges as a platform to do that. So it made perfect sense to translate this in a systematic way to enact our purpose of easing the college process within social networking.”
“The technology and the applications that we [education organizations] are building now will be a way to unburden the high school counselors so they can become more of a clearinghouse, so that instead, students can go on these ‘apps’ and spend 30 minutes learning about the financial aid process,” Frome adds.
However, the surge of applications available for underrepresented students is not limited to usage on the Facebook platform. The social media site Twitter has also been active in creating college accessibility for its students, according to Frome.
A recent study, released by college education professors Christine Greenhow and Benjamin Gleason at Michigan State University, reported that Twitter helped students better engage in the classroom and complete college courses successfully. Greenhow explains that students use Twitter as microblogs, a form of social media that allows individuals to create online content. The benefit in microblogging, according to Greenhow, is its ability to engage communication between other users and conduct real-time searching. For professor Greenhow, students found that Twitter and its ability to perform “real-time searching” enhanced the literacy of her students.
“Popular media frequently emphasizes the importance of “literacy” and “basic literacy” as a skill set related to the decoding and encoding of printed texts,” Greenhow says. “The students get more engaged because they feel it is connected to something real, that it’s not just learning for the sake of learning; it feels authentic.”
Mainly, students learned because of their ability to stay abreast of current research, including the entire college process, according to Greenhow. In fact, Johns Hopkins University uses Twitter to publicize the unique experiences of each student. Students are set up with blogs and microblogs, referred to as “Hopkins Interactive,” where they keep an online journal of their campus lives and, oftentimes, post their difficulties in their own college processes.
Recently, the Johns Hopkins Class of 2016 created and tweeted a blog that offered advice to high school seniors on how to best navigate the college admissions process. Like the College Board’s “You Can Go” app, the Hopkins Interactive tool offered a support system for prospective students, particularly those underserved students who often require more guidance in order to better transition through the collegiate experience.
According to Frome, the support system, available in newer technological tools and social media apps, has largely impacted underserved students.
“We all know that the social component for achievement is profound. Social networks that appear supportive are going to be really important so that students can find a like-minded cohort,” Frome says.