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At colleges and universities across the nation, social media teams have been quickly adapting to the changing reality of the coronavirus pandemic. In the earliest stages, they shifted from sharing news of campus events and classes to sharing news of event cancellations and plans for online instruction. Then, as the pandemic showed no signs of subsiding, they shifted into social listening mode, in an effort to help students build a sense of community even while separated by hundreds or even thousands of miles. And now comes the biggest test yet: preparing for the very real possibility that university campus life will never return back to normal.
Changing perceptions of higher education
It’s not being hyperbolic to say that the next few months could make or break the future of higher education. It’s tough to operate a business in perpetual, 24/7 crisis mode, and even tougher to operate that business when customers (i.e. students) are paying tens of thousands of dollars for a product (i.e. education) that nowhere resembles what customers thought they were paying for. All of the extras that help to define the university experience – close interaction with faculty members, dormitory life, extracurricular activities, athletics and internships – have been the biggest casualties of the coronavirus pandemic. Yes, you might still be taking a highly acclaimed course from an all-star professor at a prestigious university, but is it really worth $50,000 a year to interact only via Zoom? At a certain point, students might just decide to enroll with online courses in order to save money.
A new value proposition for higher education
Add in the fact that the student debt burden is now very much a fact of life for most middle-class families sending their kids to school, and you can start to see how the coronavirus pandemic could fundamentally change the way we think about the future of higher education. There were already issues before coronavirus, and now it looks like these issues are accelerating. The “great enrollment crash” was very much a reality before the onset of the pandemic, and that looks like it will accelerate. Due to changing demographics and new socio-economic realities, colleges have already seen eight straight years of enrollment decline. Since 2011, total college enrollment is down more than 10 percent. So, against this backdrop, what can colleges do to handle the coronavirus crisis?
1 – Double down on social listening. Colleges must be proactive, not reactive, and the only way to do that is by using social media as a monitoring and listening tool. It is important to spot issues, concerns and problems in real-time, and then adjust accordingly.
2 – Build new social tools into online video delivery models. The #1 problem facing most online learning platforms is student retention. A massively open online course from a provider like Coursera might sign up 10,000 people, but the number of people actually completing it might be a small fraction of that number. The way around that problem is greater social interaction and community engagement. If you are part of a supportive social environment, you are much more likely to finish a course.
3 – Focus on the ROI of education. Yes, return on investment is a business term, but colleges need to start thinking like businesses. They need to view students as customers and parents (who are paying the bills) as VIP customers. They need to think about the return that students and parents are getting on their investment. In some cases, that might be a full-time job or summer internship. In other cases, it might be placement into a prominent graduate program.
It will be interesting to see how colleges and universities mix up their social media content over the summer. Right now, the plan is for a full return to normalcy by the fall. Some social media teams are even beginning to mix in “feel good” content (like funny memes) – but all that could change if the “second wave” begins to kick in soon. As a result, colleges need to make social listening a priority this summer, so that they will have plenty of new features and options waiting for students when they return back to campus.