How colleges are using social media to make admissions decisions

Colleges and universities from coast to coast are using a new tool for recruiting students: social media.

It may sound strange to think that colleges would even care about how many friends a person has or what their interests may be, but they do. Social media tells higher education institutions a lot about a candidate; things that can’t necessarily be asked in a standard application.

Unlike test scores that are black and white, social media provides colleges with a decent understanding of what type of person a candidate is. Do they study hard or spend their time partying? Do they stress over homework and tests or take a nonchalant approach? Do they have a part-time job? Are they involved in extracurricular activities? What types of relationships do they have?

Colleges and universities use the information they collect to determine how successful a candidate might be at their school. The goal is to find students who are most likely to succeed and graduate within the program. While no one can know for certain who will ultimately be successful, those students who take school seriously, have clearly defined goals and display strong leadership skills tend to be most prepared for the college experience.

Ultimately, the point is simple: to increase graduation rates using big data to identify students who will be most likely to stick around.

What Types of Factors May Indicate Student Success?

Knowing that more higher education institutions are considering social media channels to size up potential students, how can you be successful in doing the same for your school? Just because your admissions department looks up social media profiles doesn’t mean anything. Everyone has their personal opinions about what makes a person successful, and these opinions vary immensely.

The process starts by identifying which factors indicate that a potential student will be most successful at your program and graduate on time. Examples of these elements can include:

  • Number of photos posted

  • Number of friends

  • Following certain groups affiliated with the school

  • Active participation on specific pages or groups

  • Work experience

  • Leadership skills

  • Volunteer work/community involvement

  • Interests

  • Demographics

How Can These Factors Be Measured?

Once the right information has been collected about a potential candidate, it will need to be put into some type of statistical analytic program. Some schools are already using these programs to their advantage.

For instance, one school hired an in-house statistician to study data about students and identify which behaviors were related to long-term success. Some of the behaviors analyzed included how many photos were uploaded to social media and how many friends were made within a certain group. The statistician was able to identify which potential students were most serious about the program using this data.

Can Big Data Really Determine Future Success?

Data can also be used to predict student success. Wichita State, for example, uses data to predict the likelihood of academic failure among enrolled students. It provides academic advisors with information regarding students who may benefit from schedule changes.

The idea is to make adjustments early on to increase the student’s chances of succeeding and graduating on time. Students who don’t graduate on time, or don’t graduate at all, are a disruption to everyone. If there is a way for schools to redirect a student’s path so that they are successful, it’s in the best interest for everyone.

What are the Drawbacks to Using Social Media as a Recruitment Tool?

The Big Brother approach is not without criticism. Some students don’t like the idea of having their social media profiles combed through without knowing it. They want to be able to provide the schools of their choice with the right information at the right time. Knowing that the schools already have this information can make the application process feel artificial.

It’s not just students who don’t like the idea of being watched over but people in general. Some feel that students who don’t have regular access to the internet or aren’t active on social media will be at a disadvantage. You probably know a friend or two who doesn’t care to broadcast their life on social media. Does that mean they don’t have a lot to offer? Or what about students who are too busy working or studying to post on social media? Could they be passed over because the data isn’t obvious? It’s possible.


Regardless of whether or not people are in favor of the Big Brother approach, the fact is that colleges and universities are increasingly using new forms of data collection and analysis to better understand college applicants. Higher education institutions are still businesses and they need to identify the students that are most likely to attend their school and be successful at their program. In the end, schools need to know which candidates are worth putting their recruitment dollars into.

What do you think about using social media to recruit college students? Is your school already using big data to identify potential students? If not, do you plan to in the near future?