As colleges try to adapt their more traditional outreach methods to the successive waves of students who live much of their lives online, it's inevitable that some will start to ask whether they can marshal the ubiquity of social networking to attract applicants, connect to enrolled students and, once they graduate, keep track of them as alumni.
Companies are already offering up tools that connect key components of the student experience to their favored online playground, Facebook. While the social network originally focused on college students, complete with course listings, those functions have since been shed and third-party developers have picked up the slack.
But they've gone much further, in a way they hope could turn Facebook into a hub for the various tasks students perform on campus: Blackboard has an application for its course management software, for instance, and Inigral has a multipurpose app that will link directly to colleges' student information databases, providing an added layer of features and privacy to the traditional Facebook experience for those institutions that buy it. Some colleges are even marketing to prospective students through the site.
Meanwhile, colleges are also exploring the possibilities of social networking for rounding up donations from alumni, retaining students who are enrolled and other central tasks. Keeping in touch with alumni is always a daunting project, especially so for recent graduates who may be more mobile and less rooted to a permanent address or phone number.
"Killer, this idea of using social networks inside the recruiting space," said Adrian Sannier, the university technology officer at Arizona State University. "You know that you could fund universities and build communities of people who are committed to the mission of the university and ... to donate in the same kind of pattern that Obama has been able to generate in his campaign."
Some institutions have already embraced the strategy through systems designed in-house that fuse social networking functionality like "walls," "friends" and photo galleries to more traditional alumni databases. Others are taking a wait-and-see approach, reluctant to develop a social network from scratch that might not attract active users in the first place, but also hesitant to embrace the wild, popular world of the social networks most students and many alumni already use.
It's a tricky balancing act, with the backing of the university brand pitted against the more unpredictable but vastly more popular Facebook (and, for alumni, LinkedIn). At the same time, what works for current students and recent graduates won't necessarily carry over to older alumni, who may not be on a social network at all and could still prefer staying in touch the old-fashioned way -- through the alumni magazine, periodic mailings and the yearly round of fund raising calls.
Betting that those colleges now dipping their toes into Facebook will eventually take the plunge, Inigral's Schools for Facebook software connects directly to clients' student and administrative data, preserving their privacy while expanding students' options for interacting with each other and with their campuses. In an effort to broaden its focus, the company is now announcing that its platform will encompass all aspects of what it calls the "academic life cycle": from marketing to managing enrollments to retaining students each year to staying in touch with alumni.
"In talking to our customers that are currently trying to sign up, one of the biggest pain points they have is that young alumni just seem to fall off the map for a little while. Cell phone numbers change, there's no home phone, addresses change, they don't respond to traditional mailings, traditional publications ... they're not necessarily coming to Web sites, and meanwhile everybody is just generally accepting that they're all on Facebook, interacting with each other," said Michael Staton, Inigral's CEO.
That move could potentially liberate colleges to use Facebook in powerful ways. For example, they could better target alumni for donations based on their interests -- and be sure they were contacting the right people by matching Facebook's contact information with their own data. They could reach students on their own turf and allow classmates to form groups. Applicants to colleges could add institutions' tailored Facebook add-ons and recruit their own friends.
These potential uses and many more would benefit from a seamless, real-time connection to colleges' own information through Oracle PeopleSoft Campus Solutions 9.0, which offers "event-based data handling" through a specification that will be released in February.
Of course, the first question colleges typically have on their minds is about privacy. "The biggest barrier is the misperception that Facebook takes data from third-party applications," Staton said, emphasizing that it was an opt-in system for students and that the application meets federal privacy standards.
Next week, at the annual Educause conference, the company is auctioning off three slots for its private beta release, which it hopes to have fully operational by the end of the spring semester with about 15 institutions. Currently, Abilene Christian University -- a perennial early adopter -- is actively working with the company to test the software on site.
But not everyone is placing their bets on Facebook. Elon University, in North Carolina, opted to develop its own solution, primarily intended as an enhanced alumni database but expanded to include students, faculty and even parents.
"I feel it's really kind of hard to call whether these things are going to be really successful over the long term," said Daniel J. Anderson, assistant vice president and director of university relations, about the proprietary system, called E 2. "Our idea was that if we got them into the system as students, they'd stay with it as alumni."
After its launch in April of 2007, almost 60 percent of the graduating class joined, with numbers declining "pretty precipitously" beyond that: only 246 joined from the class of 2004 (out of about 1,000 a year), 237 from the class of 2000, 48 from the class of 1990 and so on. But from April to the end of the year, about 6,500 people joined the network, and 4,200 of them are currently alumni.
Anderson noted that older alumni not part of the "Facebook generation" might feel more comfortable sharing information in a closed system rather than placing it on a profile that others, not Elon graduates, could view. For now, the system is an alumni database enhanced with social features, but the university encourages students to use it as well, for example, to connect with other alumni or parents for potential internships.
"It's been an interesting exercise, and I think the way it's shaking out is, it's become a very rich alumni directory, where people put their profiles up and they can find classmates and contact them easier than any of our previous systems," Anderson said. "On the other hand, I think they're not using the Facebook-style features, the daily status updates and the wall.... It's more like an enhanced alumni database that the alumni have the ability to update and put their pictures on ... rather than have the university do it."
Even so, the alumni office finds itself using Facebook to stay in touch with Elon's younger graduates (through groups and other one-way means of communication), Anderson said, acknowledging that "it's not an either/or" proposition.