Social Media and Higher Education: Meeting Students’ Expectations

Dr. Robert “Brit” Katz
Former Vice President and Senior Dean for Student Life
Millsaps College (Jackson, Mississippi)


Interim leaders, note that our students are likely not reading our emails.  This is a reality we face with the current population of American undergraduates, which is largely dominated by “Generation Z,” those born between 1995 and 2015.  Representing almost 25% of the national population, it is a cohort that has always experienced “likes,” “friend invites,” and “views” online and on social media.  According to various outlets, it is a generation that prefers YouTube and Instagram to other sources of media.  The Pew Research Center reported that 45% of teenagers are online “almost constantly,” and Criteo announced that members of Generation Z average 23 hours of streaming content per week.  In what ways our colleges and universities responding?

Using Social Media

To connect with these students, American higher education is responding to students’ fixation with social media and online-connectivity in four key areas of communication: student recruitment, student and alumni engagement, institutional marketing and branding, and crisis management and communication (Tran, 2018.) For example, administrators in Enrollment Management and Student Life are creating YouTube videos, Instagram postings, and Twitter feeds in order to attract high school prospective students. YouTube videos are used to offer full-color productions of campus tours, residence hall reviews, and campus-wide student traditions.

Using Apps

Generation Z also has an exposure to “apps” unlike any previous generation of Americans. As a result of being exposed to these convenient apps, Generation Z students expect that their college or university will provide an app that streamlines the student’s campus experience.  In response, more and more institutions are providing institutional apps that supplement the materials provided on the school’s website, streamline shopping experiences in the campus store, and more.

Putting It All Together

As interim leaders, some of us may struggle to understand young adults who profess an ability to simultaneously navigate their academic and social assignments.  Nonetheless, we must grasp the possibilities of incorporating social media into our syllabi, discussions, and meetings to educate our students.  As future social media and app technologies propagate, will we be prepared to respond and adjust rapidly to meet our students’ needs for these new media?  Interim leaders are encouraged to assess and improve their institution’s or division’s readiness in the following ways: 

  1. Distribute and complete student climate surveys (utilizing questionnaires that can be completed on cellphones) regarding social media.
  2. Encourage faculty and staff professional development for the education and training in social media adoption
  3. Reward faculty and staff for using social media platforms in their teaching, practice, and interactions with students
  4. Develop a social media calendar for all users
  5. Encourage campus-wide coordination of social media channels to better integrate inter-divisional and interdepartmental work.

If a consistent campus-wide utility of social media in educational practices is to be attained, then higher education leaders need a strong working platform for educating and training faculty and staff on how to use social media effectively and responsibly.  Although many faculty are currently “unenthusiastic” (Zachos, et al) about fully incorporating social media into their teaching and research without further empirical data, campuses with well-developed social media channels and institutional apps will be more successful at recruiting and retaining Generation Z students than those without. As interim leaders, we can help to bring focus to the importance of these evolving communication channels for the benefit of the institutions we serve.  

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