The value proposition of US higher education is increasingly in doubt. Tuition and fees continue to rise while the number of jobs with salaries that justify the investment in preparing for them does not. The looming potential increase in student loan rates will not help matters. In a controversial article and follow-up blog post written by Megan McArdle of Newsweek, “For a lot of kids, the system works fine, but it’s definitely not working for everyone, and with budgets tightening everywhere, we need to think hard about how, and why, we invest in college.” Most studies find that the questions of whether to pursue college and where depend largely upon variables such as availability of scholarships and aid, strength of major of interest, location, campus safety, and employment prospects upon graduation. Much of the data that shape our ongoing understanding of the perceived value of higher education in the United States and of individual institutions come from surveys and focus groups. While these research methodologies are certainly valuable, we have largely ignored a vast wellspring of data in the analysis: social media. Social media posts provide authentic, unfiltered communications that can be obtained 24/7 and in real time, making it a highly relevant and beneficial research tool.

We tend to view social media through an unfairly narrow lens. It is easy to think of Facebook, Twitter, and the slew of other platforms as tools for the procrastinator, the shameless self-promoter, the heavy-handed marketer, or that friend or family member who just can’t bear to keep his or her thoughts bottled up inside. I admit that I cringe while reading the vast majority of my friends’ posts about what they had for dinner, how they plan to start working out more, and where they just checked in. Nonetheless, there is tremendous value in social media data when analyzed strategically, systematically, and sensibly.

I am a higher education marketer who helps college and university professionals attract more and/or different types of students. For many institutions of higher education (the non-elite schools), this is no small feat. I decided to utilize social media monitoring and text analytics to get a better sense of what people were saying about some of the top-ranked institutions in the United States, including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the University of Michigan. Setting up social media monitoring software to search for school names, Twitter handles, and athletic mascots, I collected and analyzed approximately 120,000 conversations on social networks and other online channels from March 1 to April 15, 2013. March Madness and the height of the college admissions season fell within this time period. Therefore, I expected to see a lot of online discussion focused on the college choice process and important variables associated with selection, as well as on school spirit surrounding the basketball tournament. I specifically sought to identify and learn about conversations around the critical issues facing higher education, such as cost, academic quality, and campus safety. I also focused on providing concrete strategies to higher education marketers who are attempting to sell their institutions to prospective students. (View a report that discusses the methodology, findings, and implications here.)

(Infographic by Martin Manuel, senior creative at TWG Plus)

Some examples of posts: “Tuition for 1 year at Columbia University to study Sociomedical Sciences is $34,000, without fees. Jesus, help me,” and “The top three most expensive colleges in America are all in New York: Sarah Lawrence College, New York University, and Columbia University. Each one clocks in close to $60,000 per year for tuition, and room and board.” Posts such as these should alert the marketing personnel at Columbia to address concerns regarding the school’s pricing. “Catch me at the University of Michigan taking art history classes in surrealism that in no way translate into a potential career,” is a post that demonstrates the struggle that many students now face between pursuing a course of study that is personally desirable versus one that is economically justifiable.

Collecting and analyzing the feedback that can be derived from social media presents a big opportunity for college and university staff members to understand and address the opinions that are constantly proclaimed. There is no lack of online and social media discussion about US higher education—it’s pros, cons, and challenges. The question is: Can we listen to the conversation and respond appropriately so that we begin to restore faith and confidence in this institution that has long been a source of pride?