If You Build It, Will They Come? The Benefits of Using Social Media in the Financial Aid Office

Linda Peckham, Senior Training Strategist, Great Lakes Higher Education Corporation and Affiliates

Higher education at large has responded to the social media boon by strategically utilizing Facebook and other platforms to improve admissions, yield, community relations and even alumni giving. Why then, has the financial aid community been slower to respond? Concerns about office resources and how and when to post content are the most common reasons offered by aid leaders when asked about their lack of a social media presence. Ironically, schools with a successful financial aid social media presence have reaped substantial returns on investment with minimal use of staff time when they have deployed a strategic approach to a social media plan.

“Start with your mission,” advises Amanda B. Carter, associate director of financial aid at the University of Rochester. “We made the decision to enter the space based on who we are as an aid office and our desire to communicate more regularly with students.” The University of Rochester successfully launched a Twitter account for financial aid in January and currently uses it to push out critical information about deadlines and policies. Strategically, they made the decision to only adopt Twitter and to continue to share a Facebook presence with the admissions office. Carter reports that one staff person is responsible for posting tweets and monitoring responses and generally spends about 30 minutes a day on this effort.

Northeastern University took a broader approach to using social media tools. “Financial aid offices often have a difficult time building trust and good communications with students so we saw social media as an important strategy for us,” explains Jim Slattery, Senior Director of Financial Aid. Anya Morozkina, assistant director of communications and administration for the office, and the staff person responsible for the social media presence, concurs, “We wanted to change the perception among the students about the aid office. We are not the grinches on campus. We want students to know that they can reach out to us and we are ready to help them.”

Morozkina notes that Northeastern’s strategy is focused on gaining a larger student audience and improving perceptions about the office. As a result, they have implemented a long term plan for posting content and update their Facebook page every other day. Content updates might include information about broader financial aid topics including articles reposted from NASFAA and other financial aid sources. Morozkina also recommends seeking topical ideas from student employees. “They know what their peers want.”

Liz Gross, director of university marketing and communications at the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha, also encourages aid offices to embrace social media as part of their mission to serve students. “Social media can allow you to inform, connect and make a positive impression. Most aid offices are still thinking about it as only a one-way communication platform.” She notes that aid professionals need to think about “the social media space as a community where you can publicly help students solve problems. It’s really a way to turn your complainers into your champions.”

Fullerton College has successfully embraced Facebook as an opportunity to improve customer service and student impressions about the financial aid office. Greg Ryan, director of financial aid, notes that their Facebook presence allows them to respond to student concerns within minutes and has resulted in dramatic decreases in phone calls to the office and shorter lines during peak periods. He also reports that over the three years since Fullerton implemented a Facebook page for the office, the amount of time he spends responding has diminished. “The student community now does most of the work. Students respond to each other and answer financial aid questions through the community page. And also publicly thank the office when we’ve been responsive to their concerns.”

Gross says that Fullerton’s experience is exactly what the goal should be for the financial aid office in the social media world: “You need to think about cultivating a community over time so that students begin to answer the questions for their peers. That’s what you want in the long run. Students want to hear from other students about how to resolve processing or deadline issues.”

Financial aid offices that have developed a social media presence based on strategy have successfully improved student service and campus perceptions about their office. As Gross sums up, “A social media presence provides public proof that your office is there to help.”

Suggestions for starting your financial aid office social media effort:

  • Start with your mission and build your communication plan from there.
  • Build a semester-long communication calendar so you can plan content in advance.
  • Refresh your content as often as you can–every other day if possible.
  • Use student employees to help write content and respond to posts.
  • Develop a social media policy in advance, including guidelines for how you will handle derogatory comments.

Readers interested in more information about building a social media presence for their financial aid office are welcome to attend a free webinar on the topic hosted by Great Lakes. Please visit https://www.mygreatlakes.org/web/FAP/training/findAvailableEvents?selected=training for more information or to register.

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