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Social Media: The Swiss Army Knife of Higher Education

March 4, 2013

“The game has completely changed…The traditional way seems like a Flat Earth Society to me. I will post this blog as soon as I am done, and it will have the potential to reach millions of readers. Today…Operating out of a fear base is almost never a good idea. Social media, with its unprecedented immediacy and transparency, is not a place we can go successfully, as an individual or as an institution of higher education, if we travel in fear.” This article gives some insight about how to move forward in the foggy world of social media to advance institutions of higher education and learning along the way.

Social Media: The Swiss Army Knife of Higher Education

If Social Media were a person, I would have to make her the highest paid employee at Southwestern College. Her job description would be five pages long. Maybe ten.

As it is, I am the president of a graduate school, I am in my fifties, and Social Media has become my Swiss Army Knife for doing business in higher education. I am a digital immigrant, and am embarrassed to say I have more often than not gone kicking and screaming into each new social media platform that comes along.

Initially, I thought they were all, each for their own special reason, stupid. I wish I were exaggerating or being cute. At some point, I read a book about each one, or get some mentoring,  and ultimately I end up breathing each one in deeply, letting it teach me its value.

ImageSo, about Social Media in higher education…

Southwestern College is a small, spiritually-sourced (non-denominational, “Consciousness-centered”) and fully accredited graduate institution.  I have developed a deep and compelling appreciation of social media as an enormously powerful, relevant, and serious tool for success in higher education. (I sometimes have to skip pipe ceremonies and Kirtans to read Tony Hsieh, Mari Smith or Mashable or Social Media Today, or attend a webinar, but that’s OK…) 

Over the past two to three years, social media has become a primary tool and strategy for recruitment, for marketing, for development, for public relations, for alumni relations and for moving our unique school toward a “thought leadership” position. I do not have a development officer, a grant writer, a PR or a marketing person. Or perhaps I could say, I am all of those guys, and I farm a lot of the work out to Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest, Scoop.It, Hootsuite, Google Plus, You Tube and the online newswires.

As is the case with many small schools (we have approximately eight hundred alumni), tuition has always been our primary (75% to 92%) source of college income. Our former development function performed valued activities, but lost money for eight straight years. The last two years I had a grant writer (2009-10), we threw buckets of cash after once-philanthropic organizations which were now hunkered down under the bed waiting for the world economy storm to blow over. We wrote thirty-five grants and got none of them. I am a very positive guy, but the likelihood of raising a sustainable income for the College from eight hundred alumni in the counseling and art therapy field is simply not good. Not happening. And when grant writing starts to feel like playing bunco, I have to revisit my responsibility to my institution and its mission, and make hard decisions.

So in the midst of this fiscal murk, a light bulb went off, and I wrote a white paper explaining why “Marketing, Recruitment and Admissions Are (and always have been) Our Only Successful Development Initiative.” The board “got it” and I shifted significant budget money to implement that new vision. It just made sense. One additional student at the school represents $45,000 in tuition over two years. Eleven new students about a half million dollars over two years. On a total budget of a little over two million per year. The divining rod was bending like crazy. We had been reading the industry’s theoretical map instead of looking at the actual terrain upon which we had been walking for the 30 years of the College’s history.

The several years prior to our social media launch were disheartening. We could not go toe to toe with our bigger, sister schools, writing checks for hard copy ads in the American Airlines magazine, inMother Jones, in Counseling Today, in the Shaman’s Drum. But now, in the social media era, it is more a matter of how much time and energy you are willing and able to pour into your social media empire.

So that’s what we are doing. I spend roughly a million hours a week at social media, and in the fall, for the first time, we are hiring graduate assistants who will work ten hours per week apiece on social media projects and developments. And of course, I am trying to do my best Tom Sawyer, getting more folks at the College on-board, blogging, pinning, posting photographs. I have to say, Tom was much better at it than I am. I’m not sure why this is. Given an opportunity to post a blog on our authority site web page, you ought to do it. That’s a piece of advice.

So with social media as an enormously powerful ally, we broke all enrollment records this past year, for each quarter, and overall, and our credit hour production was great as well. (That record will be broken next year. I can see that already…) Prospective students now show up routinely, saying “I feel like I know you guys already from your videos and blogs and Facebook page … I’ve been following you for months…”  It is gratifying, and it is good business, and it is authentic.

That last is probably the most gratifying of all. The new business sensibility, which has been completely transformed by social media, calls for building relationships, connectivity, collaboration, transparency. It is all over the new business book titles at the airport. It is what Counselors and Art Therapists do, naturally.

LinkedIn is also one of our professional anchors. Pinterest is a huge tool for our Art Therapy program, and it is but a mere babe in the social media world. Southwestern College is pretty much all over the social media map. Facebook is huge for us. We Tweet a number of times a day, post on Google Plus, and I have my eye on Scoop.It. My Klout rating is around 57.

Of course a truly unique curriculum and amazing faculty will always be our greatest draw at Southwestern College (your institution has its special draw), but virtually every interface between Southwestern College and the world is now impacted, or driven by social media.

There are always doubters — goes without saying. But for me, social media seems self-evidently valuable in an enormous way. I happen to think it will be the biggest paradigm shift I see in my lifetime, or second, behind the internet itself. Of course you can use it like a knucklehead, but you can also knock somebody in the head with a hard copy of the Bhagavad Gita. I mean, come on.

The traditional world of stuffy, self-important journal publications with its high rejection rates and long, drawn out time lines has become virtually irrelevant for us in terms of sharing professional content, thoughts, art images and so on. While my beloved alma mater Ohio State will continue to require you to publish regularly  in over-referee-ed journals, we all know by now (or should) that we are now our own publishers. The game has completely changed. My journal article may come out in 18 months, but to be thought leaders, we want to post tonight. Get feedback tomorrow. The traditional way seems like a Flat Earth Society to me. I will post this blog as soon as I am done, and it will have the potential to reach millions of readers. Today.

That, my friends, is powerful, and it is cool.

And I haven’t even written about how social media can be incorporated into courses and curricula, but that too, is another post.

Not that I have any delusion that I am on any leading edge, but I actually had a brief doubt about whether I should share what I am doing in social media with (potentially) other schools, “competing” schools. But that doubt lifted quickly. We are all in this together. In this Aquarian Age, the opportunity to shift consciousness will be through collaboration, not against-ness. Operating out of a fear base is almost never a good idea. Social media, with its unprecedented immediacy and transparency, is not a place we can go successfully, as an individual or as an institution of higher education, if we travel in fear.


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