Social Media for College Search in 2021
Enrollment Insights Blog

Social Media for College Search in 2021

These results are from the high school class of 2021. If you’re looking for the most up-to-date survey results, find them here.

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Summary and Methodology

In this year’s survey, we asked students about their usage and college searching behavior on nine different social networks. Additionally, we asked what type of content they want to see from colleges on these networks. Only 3% of students responded that they did not use any of the nine networks and 73% reported that they viewed colleges on at least one social network. Impressions were most likely to be earned on Instagram (62%), YouTube (40%), and Facebook (28%). More students use YouTube than Instagram, but they are less interested in viewing college content there. 

This year, the sixth year conducting the Niche Senior Survey, we received completed responses from 19,277 students. Students who had not made their decision yet were disqualified since we want to focus on the process of search through enrollment. In total, there were 26,103 responses. The survey was sent to seniors who had registered a profile on the Niche platform. The survey was open from May 7 to June 20, 2021 to allow students time after the May 1 deadline that some institutions use.

Student Usage Preferences

The majority of students reported that they use at least one social network. Only 3% said that they do not use any of the nine networks we asked about and 92% responded that they use three or more. YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat had the highest usage amongst students ーall are used by at least three-quarters of students. Only two of the networks that we asked about were used by less than half of the students; Reddit and ZeeMee. 

There were some key differences in demographic usage of different networks, which can be used to tailor messaging and recruitment campaigns organically and using paid social media. While only half of the urban and suburban students use Facebook, two-thirds of rural students did. This same split was not seen in Instagram, which is owned by Facebook and runs its ad platform. The latest network on the scene catching everyone’s attention is TikTok. Male students were twice as likely as their peers to say that they don’t use TikTok; 55% use it. It was also more popular with the lowest income students, perhaps highlighting an opportunity to share financial aid and affordability messages to your audience. While only one-third of students reported using Reddit, the majority of students identifying as Asian ethnicities did use Reddit. This was driven by nearly two-thirds of Chinese and Korean students saying that they use Reddit.

Daily Social Media Usage Over Time from 2016-2021.
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Student Usage of Social Media for College Search

The majority of students, 73%, will view colleges on social media. Impressions do not necessarily mean engagement though, 32% of respondents reported that they were interested in engaging with college content on any network, half of those were only interested in doing so on one network though. The results also highlight that just because students use a network does not mean they are interested in seeing colleges there, much like their parents. For example, 75% of students said that they use Snapchat; but only 18% want to use Snapchat to view colleges and 7% say they will interact with college content. This could speak to the quality of the content that they are seeing as well.

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Students were most interested in using Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook for viewing colleges. The engagement was highest on Instagram, but only 22% of students said that they were interested in engaging with or messaging colleges. This speaks to content that captures eyes and drives users back to your website through bio link tools rather than having the goal of comments and DMs. There were only minimal differences in demographics, across networks and behaviors.

What Content Students Want to See on Social Networks

Students were given nine different types of content that they might encounter on social media and asked how important it was to them. They were asked about:

  • Athletics
  • Campus life
  • Classrooms and academics
  • Current student takeovers
  • Fine and performing arts
  • High quality (professional) photos and video
  • Interactions with followers from the college account
  • Students that look like me
  • Updates on deadlines and events

They could respond on a five-point Likert scale of:

  • I need to see this
  • Important to see this
  • Neutral/no opinion
  • Not important to see this
  • I would rather not see this

The most important content for seniors was updates on deadlines and events, campus life content, and classrooms and academics. There were two interesting, and likely unexpected, high-level takeaways. The first is that athletics was the least important to students, just being edged out by fine and performing arts content. This foreshadows results in the 2021 Niche Senior Survey being released in September. The second was that professional content was more important than student takeovers, which are what are often highlighted as authentic content that students want. Student takeovers were the second most likely to elicit a neutral response and only 17% of respondents said that they need to see it, in comparison to 24% who said that they need to see the high-quality content.

While it’s not surprising, it should be emphasized that nonwhite students were more likely to say that it was important to see students that look like them across social networks. Representation is important, and likely we would see the same for parents, alumni, and community members as well. First-generation students were more interested in current student takeovers than their peers, possibly as their lens for the college experience that replaces their family stories. Athletic content was more interesting to students on ZeeMee and Facebook than elsewhere. You can explore your audience’s content preferences using the filters below.

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Using Social Media Strategically to Recruit

  • Using Facebook ads as an outreach tool for impressions doesn’t appear to be the best tactic broadly, which is why taking advantage of remarketing audiences is critical. Reach the people who are on Facebook and Instagram and already have an awareness of your brand to convert to desired actions rather than trying to attract new students who have shown to be less interested in seeing colleges more broadly.
  • Admissions offices who want a dedicated account for messaging students should focus on Instagram, it is the only place that the majority of students go to see college content.
  • Updates on deadlines and events are very important to students, but that doesn’t mean that you should be posting text-only graphics or screenshots of posters. Find creative ways to share video with text, photos with text, and direct back to landing pages with more information. The bonus of using a landing page is that you can remarket off of it to continue messaging students.
  • Speaking of remarketing, there are several ways to expand your reach. Use remarketing from your known CRM students and from key pages on your website to build your social audience. You can further expand your reach by using the Niche Audience to reach people who are viewing your profile or your competitors’. Learn more about this and see if it’s a good fit for you and your team.
  • Audit your institutional and any admissions accounts. Do your photos and videos match what students say they care about? Which posts are getting the most prospective student engagement, not just staff and alumni? This will help you to better meet their expectations.
  • Investing heavily in TikTok? Make sure that you can actually measure value for your time. Only a quarter of students say they want college content there so that energy might be better used elsewhere.
Prior to coming to Niche in 2019 Will served 9 years at Manchester University in roles as an Admissions Counselor, Associate Director for Admissions Operations, Social Media Coordinator, and ultimately as Digital Strategist. Will surfaces tactical insights from user behavior and surveys to help higher ed build recruitment strategies. In addition to the Enrollment Insights blog, webinars, and podcast; Will is a frequent conference speaker and podcast guest. He has presented at NACAC, AACRAO-SEM, AMA Higher Ed, CASE V, EduWeb, and EMA. Will's work has been featured in Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, CNBC, CNN, the LA Times, and The New York Times among other outlets.