Social Media: Could Ya, Should Ya, Would Ya?

In a guest post today, Diane Lambart Fleming shares some questions financial-aid offices should explore before dipping their toes into social media. Ms. Fleming recently retired as an associate director in the office of scholarships and financial aid at Central Michigan University. She is one of several professionals who will write occasional guest posts for Head Count this year.

For several years I have been wrestling with social media as a means of communicating financial-aid information to enrolled students. Years ago colleges and universities depended on the printed word to provide information, request action by a student, or both. With the advent of e-mail, the printed word has become almost obsolete. Electronic communication became an acceptable and, more important, legal mode of communication, at least as far as the U.S. Department of Education was concerned. We have e-award letters, e-verification documents, e-satisfactory-academic-progress notifications, e-Master Promissory Notes, and more, all of which have received the blessing of the department.

Now, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are all the rage. We are told that students do not pay attention to letters or e-mails. Goodness, they don’t even answer their cellphones anymore! Unless one sends a message to a student via Facebook or Twitter, it will go ignored. Recently Pope Benedict XVI’s use of Facebook and Twitter was cited as the best way to communicate with the masses—or at least those who are technologically savvy.

We know that many students prefer to read and respond only to social-media messages, but social media cannot adapt to the federal rules and regulations to which the financial-aid office is subject. The type, format, and content of a majority of financial-aid communications simply cannot be conveyed via social media. If a financial-aid office wants to use social media, it has to evaluate the following issues.

Is your office communicating official information? Many institutions use e-mail as a means of officially notifying students about such things as payments due, grades, financial-aid award letters, and satisfactory academic progress. This information, as required by regulation, must be tracked as sent by the institution’s information-technology office. Social media can be used only to send general announcements, such as when to file a FAFSA or reminders of the consequences of adding, dropping, or withdrawing from classes. Social media, however, cannot be used to conduct official institutional business for a variety of reasons.

First, not every student on the campus has a Facebook or Twitter account. Second, you have to actively recruit students to sign up for your Facebook or Twitter announcements. Third, only general information can be communicated because the institution cannot disclose any student-specific information to the public. And lastly, you must set up your Facebook and Twitter accounts to be “do not respond” accounts, to prevent disclosing personal information.

When contemplating using social media as a form of communication, you must remember that social media is not a strategy but rather just another tactic, like sending a letter or an e-mail. Also, you must remember that social media is not an institutional goal; it’s just another tool to maximize communication.

When contemplating the use of social media, your first question should be: “Could ya?” Do you have the personnel and technology to create a Facebook page or Twitter account? Can you keep your Web page and your social-media accounts up to date at all times? How will you handle student expectations of real-time responses? A large office can assign the job of keeping social-media accounts up to date to one person, but at what cost? What task will that person not be able to continue doing as a result—and to whom will you assign it? How will you recruit students to “like” your Facebook page or follow you on Twitter?

The second question should be: “Should ya?” That question poses more issues than the first one. By what means does the institution officially communicate with students? If you have a small office, you may not have the staff, time, or resources to manage several modes of communication. If you have a large office, you will have to determine if using social media is worth the time and effort.

The last question to ask is more philosophical: “Would ya?” Just because social media is all the rage, does that mean your office needs to use that particular tactic? In a nonscientific survey of some of my colleagues, there was no consensus when it came to social media. Some aid administrators are adamantly opposed, others are gung-ho, and the rest of the group (by far the majority) is still pondering the question.

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