That's Smart: How Higher Education is Using Social Media

Just as summer is hitting its stride, I am longing to be back on campus. It’s probably the single best sign that I am not actually a college student. It’s been a handful of years since I graduated from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and even the email I got last week asking me to donate to my alma mater got me feeling sentimental. Confession: I didn’t actually donate, but let’s come back to that.

I remember using my university email address to sign up for Facebook a few weeks before my freshman orientation. My, how times have changed.  Just read UT student Andrew Watts’  “A Teenager’s View on Social Media,” for a primer on the new reality: students have more options than ever about where and how to connect.

Social media is transforming the college experience—between students and their peers, athletics programs and fans, and ultimately, the university and its alumni. Here are five ways smart universities are connecting with students and athletes and one thing they should do to better engage alumni.

Making Acceptance Letters Social

Is there anything like the thrill of opening a college acceptance letter? There were actual chills running down my spine when I watched “The Letter M,” made to welcome U of M’s Class of 2016.

As schools make the jump to digital notifications, special, sharable touches like this are becoming the new “heavy envelope.” Nearly a third of students now apply to 7 or more colleges. Whether it’s a YouTube video, an Instagram post, or a Tweet from the University President welcoming the new class, showing your enthusiasm can help seal the deal.

Enhancing the Athletics Experience

From recruiting to the gameday experience, social media is changing college athletics. Athletic departments are using social media to increase program visibility, gain insights, and engage directly with recruits.

On game day, it’s all about bringing fans closer to the action. According to the University of Nebraska’s Kelly Mosier, it’s simple: “Connect the fans, connect the team, connect the brand. Tell their stories.” And these experiences are sponsorable. I’ll even begrudgingly tip my hat to the Michigan State Spartans, who use #SpartanStudentSelfie to encourage fans to show up early and share photos onto the big screen.

Engaging Across Campus

Think of all of the activity across a single campus on a single day. Social media is being used to communicate about everything from the academic, to the extracurricular, to everyday life (like student dining).

Many schools have established a social media center of excellence and have empowered individual departments to maintain social presences with their guidance. Harvard Business School has a page dedicated to social media that surfaces top content and houses a Social Media Directory for its several different accounts.

Teaching Social Business

You’ll find someone with a social job title at nearly every Fortune 500 company. You’ll also find companies like ours that are always looking for smart social people to join our team.

To prepare students for this new world of work, many academic programs are incorporating social media into the curriculum. Earlier this year I spoke with several bright San Jose State University students in Michael Brito’s #SocialSJSU class. I was impressed. As part of the course, student groups were managing the social media presence for businesses in town.

Celebrating Commencement

For students, graduation is a time to celebrate and prepare for a legacy led off of campus. For universities, it’s an opportunity to begin a relationship with students as alumni. Many schools are incorporating social media into commencement ceremonies to encourage students and family to share.


"We want to continue to be a part of our alumni's increasingly digital lives,” said David Platt, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Programs at the McCombs School of Business, University of Texas at Austin, “Using a Spredfast Experience to incorporate social media into our commencement ceremony is one of many digital touch-points that we will have with our alumni as they leave the University to go forth and change the world."

Engaging Alumni

Remember how I said I didn’t donate after receiving that email? Remember how that “The Letter M” video sent chills down my spine? If U of M had also sent that video to alums and ended with a call to action to share the Michigan Difference with another student, it would have been scary how fast I pulled out my wallet, “Here, take my money!”  

This is where alumni engagement (and soliciting donations) needs to go. In an informal survey of my peers, nobody had been asked to donate to their alma mater via social media, but we all still get frequent requests via email, direct mail, and by phone.

I barely talk to my family on the phone, I definitely don’t want to (politely) say no to a nice college kid asking me to donate a sum greater than my monthly student loan payments. We live in the age of Kickstarter and Tilt. I’m far more likely to make several, smaller donations if presented with a great piece of content, than I am to make a larger gift because I received an embellished note in the mail.

Universities are lucky to have so much great content at their disposal. Often, that content resonates across multiple audiences. What do you think, would you be more likely to make a social donation? Let me know, I’m @cjdoman.'s picture

Courtney Doman

Courtney is the Content Marketing Manager at Spredfast. She focuses on sharing smart social ideas and insights to transform the way companies connect with consumers. Courtney is a passionate football fan (supporting Arsenal and the USMNT), curious traveller, and ambitious home cook.