Social Media Scrutiny and the Business of College Admissions

Social media review at the college level has become significantly more nuanced than the commonly shared vision of an admissions officer Googling the name of a prospective student. As the way colleges are utilizing social media evolves, so must the social media advice proffered to college-bound students.

To gain a better understanding of why over 75% of colleges are looking at student social media, one needs to appreciate the complexities of modern-day college admissions decisions. Understanding the driving metrics behind the business of college admissions exposes the shortcomings of the prototypical college application to deliver critical decision-making metrics to college admissions and registrars.

Does your institution monitor social media at any stage of the admissions decision process?

AACRAO July 2017 (538 Respondents)

Colleges are reviewing student social media at several stages of the admissions review process to achieve their enrollment goals by making data-driven decisions. These stages include the prospecting stage, the application stage, the acceptance stage, and the merit scholarship stage.    

At what stage, or stages, of the admissions decision process do you monitor social media?

AACRAO July 2017

Not all college admissions protocols are the same but all colleges strive for the same outcome: assemble a high achieving, engaged, safe, diverse, and full freshman class.

Let's take a look at the ways colleges manage to achieve this goal.

1. To fill their incoming freshman class, colleges need to attract an applicant pool large and diverse enough to meet the school's enrollment needs.

Colleges are well-served by maximizing the number of applications received. Acceptance rates (applications accepted  ÷ applications received) have become a critical metric for measuring a college's prestige. The lower the acceptance rate the more selective a college appears to be. 

Acceptance rates are lowered simply by inducing more students to apply. One method commonly used by colleges to generate more applications is to remove submission requirements. Over one-thousand accredited four year colleges are now ACT and SAT test-optional. Colleges also adopt a holistic approach towards student assessment, looking beyond GPA and test scores to attract non-traditional students. 

At test-optional Trinity College, test scores were once seen as a substantial reason to reject a student. However, now the admissions staff spend significantly more time ascertaining if the applicant is prepared for college and will bring meaning to the community.  

Harvard applicants will no longer be required to submit SAT, ACT writing scores and many other colleges have removed the requirement to submit supplemental essays. Harvard suggests that students can choose to submit their writing portfolios with their application. 

By making it easier for students to apply by removing requisite submissions and then looking at the applicant holistically, colleges have less actionable data to assess within the confines of the college application. Social media provides colleges with a fast and easy way to make informed assessments of an applicant's qualifications by viewing their digital presence to assess their skills, interests, character, activities, and accomplishments.

Appreciating that students are customers, colleges have also become sophisticated target-marketers. It’s no surprise that colleges are increasingly turning to customer relationship management tools long used in other industries to structure communication and outreach. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems are used by colleges to engage with and attract applicants. CRM systems "can be integrated with social media to gain additional insights into prospective students, and many CRM platforms offer a number of interesting ways to do this."  For instance, several CRM systems tailored for college use automatically link the Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn profiles of student prospects with their contact information allowing colleges to learn more about their interests, tastes, and motivations for the purpose of generating student interest in the school.

2. Enrollment yield determines how many students colleges need to accept to fill the class.

Another way for schools to lower their acceptance rates is by increasing their enrollment yield. Enrollment yield is the percentage of accepted students who opt to enroll and matriculate at the college.

For example, if a college needs to fill 1,000 seats for their incoming Freshman class and the school's historic yield is 50% they will need to accept a minimum of 2,000 students from their application pool. If they received 12,500 applications, that school's acceptance rate will be 16%. What if this school can increase their yield to 75%? Then that school will only need to accept 1,500 students and its acceptance rate drops to 12% without increasing the number of applications received. 

Moving from 30 percent to 17 percent in just two years, Tulane’s acceptance rate has plummeted since 2015. Two factors have contributed to this rapid rise in selectivity: a dramatic increase in the number of applications and an increasing number of students who accept offers of admission to the school. Despite the university accepting 700 fewer students, the Class of 2021 contained more students than the Class of 2020 as a result of a larger yield. 
— Tulane Hullabaloo

The most effective way for colleges to increase their enrollment yield is to identify qualified applicants who they believe are most likely to enroll if accepted. The concept of "demonstrated interest" is meeting the digital age. Where registered college visits and calls to the admissions office were once considered the best (and arguably the only) way for applicants to demonstrate interest, social media engagement and algorithmic monitoring now delivers detailed predictive analytics for colleges to base their acceptance decisions. Technology enables colleges to monitor applicant social media engagement with the college community. Sophisticated algorithms and big data analytics help colleges make informed decisions about student intentions. In turn, enrollment yields will continue to rise. 

3. "We aren’t trying to admit freshmen, we are trying to admit graduates."

This headline sums up the thrid metric driving admissions decisions. Beyond enrollment yield, elite schools with built-in demand such as Ivy League institutions, Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern look at character traits and personal attributes such as resilience, grit, commitment, leadership, and fit to admit those students who possess "stick-to-it-ive-ness" and are deemed most likely to matriculate through graduation. College seats that go empty after the first semester or freshman year are expensive to fill and empty revenue seats are costly to colleges. 

Standardized test scores do not predict a student’s success at college. Test-optional and holistic admissions review an applicant’s whole academic and lived experience. Many schools are placing an increasing emphasis on personal qualities that will lead students to succeed in college. This renewed focus includes examining “curiosity, love of learning, perseverance, and grit” in addition to the standard “grades, rigor, curriculum, and other qualitative data.”

4. Many colleges need to provide financial incentives to fill their seats.

Not all students can afford to pay full retail tuition for college. Colleges understand there is a competitive need to incent students to attend their schools (a discounted class seat is much better than an empty class seat). When it comes to offering merit assistance, the character of the student comes into sharper focus as schools do not want to provide money to students who lack the character to represent the school in the right way. 

The business of college admissions has moved beyond the metrics best delivered by the traditional college application. Students and parents who understand these dynamics will be in a better position to navigate the admissions process in strategic and opportunistic ways.

Once we understand the modern metrics that are driving admissions decisions, we can understand why the traditional college application no longer delivers the information schools need to make informed decisions. The Common Application and even the Coalition College Application are rooted in a dated framework. Colleges are forced to look at applicants beyond the scope of the application to assess them in accordance with their current business needs.

Student social media delivers this missing and actionable information to admissions, enrollment, and financial offices in efficient ways. Great grades and academic rigor will continue to be the primary metric for college admissions but a student's chances for admission to their dream school will greatly approve once they understand how to utilize social media to demonstrate interest, convey good character, and showcase the skills colleges are looking for to set themselves apart from other qualified applicants.


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Alan KatzmanComment