Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Small Community Colleges Make Social Media a Priority

on September 25, 2013

While small community colleges may not have the resources that large universities do, they're making an effort to be on social media so they can serve their students and community.

Community colleges face both unique opportunities and challenges with social media, said Brian Smith, communications coordinator for Austin Community College in Texas, which enrolls more than 43,000 credit students. The college does not have the fan base of a large athletics program, which means it doesn't have a built-in following on social media like universities do. Plus, students generally only spend two years at the college, so many don't have as lasting of a connection with it.

"With community college, you've got a lot of students who frankly may be ashamed of the bad rap that community colleges get, so they don't want to associate themselves on social media with it," Smith said.

But they do have one advantage: More students at community colleges connect to the Internet wirelessly through their mobile phones than students on university campuses, according to a 2011 report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Sixty-five percent of community college students used the Internet or email on their phone -- 2 percent more than undergrads and 13 percent more than grad students. And when they're using smartphones, they're most likely checking social media.

"Since we don't have the sports spirit to really drive a lot of what we do or to drive our followership, we're relying on people to be really engaged with their community, with their school and hopefully feel compelled to follow us for more of that," Smith said.

While universities often have a full-time staff member to manage their major social media accounts, community colleges don't always have the resources to fund a dedicated person. That means that often staff members in the marketing department have to fit social media in with the other tasks they're responsible for.

"Sometimes it's crammed into an hour every couple of days, and it's hard to get a good take on what's going on in the social media world in that little time," said Traci Pitman, design and creative services coordinator for Texarkana College in Texas, which has about 4,000 students taking classes for credit.

But if community colleges have the resources, they should invest in a full-time position where a staff member dedicates most of his or her time to social media, Smith said. "If you want your college to have a strong presence on multiple social media platforms, you really need somebody dedicated to handling that," he said.

At Austin Community College, Smith takes pictures, writes copy for the website, creates news releases and does other tasks for the marketing department. But he is known as the go-to guy for social media and spends the rest of his time managing and monitoring the college's social media platforms.

While he used to manage social networks through the third-party management platform HootSuite, Smith started going to the websites directly because it allows him to view the page as his readers do.

"I like to be reminded of what the page feels like when people go to it," Smith said. "I feel like it keeps me better in touch with what we're actually putting out there on social media."

By managing and monitoring social media, community colleges can answer student questions and get an idea of what their community thinks about them. If Pitman doesn't know the answer to a question asked on Facebook, she finds the people who can answer it.

"We want to create a positive image for the college, and so for us to be aware of any kind of negativity that's out there or even to be aware of what people do like so we can run with it — it's really important," Pitman said.

Both Pitman and Smith have found that posting pictures works well in terms of engaging students. Smith started Throwback Thursdays, which feature pictures from the college archives that have been popular. They're both using Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, though Pitman is using Google+ as well and Smith is using LinkedIn.

When LinkedIn added university pages in August, Austin Community College instantly had thousands of followers on its page because the social networking service automatically added LinkedIn users to the page who were alumni or current students. The school's biggest following is on this page with more than 25,000 followers, compared to around 8,000 Facebook followers.

"Social media is a bug that a lot of people have been bitten by," Smith said, "and LinkedIn puts that social media vibe into a more professional realm. We do see a lot of students putting their stuff on LinkedIn, and it's great."

Social platforms helped Texarkana College get the community to pass a tax so that it could stay open, Pitman said. A year ago, the community college had a financial mismanagement scandal that left it facing a shut-down. The county residents voted on whether to tax themselves to keep the doors open, and social media outreach was credited as a big part of why the tax passed.

The college created infographics with facts about what was going on and shared them on Facebook, Pitman said. It also had a live Q&A with the college president on Facebook, which provided a forum for open and honest dialog.

While small community colleges may not have the resources that universities do, they can still make their college visible and available on social media, as these two colleges have shown.


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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.

E-mail: troscorla@centerdigitaled.com
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