Colleges embrace new world of social media

Some college admissions, scholarships consider posts

It's just past 6 p.m. on a recent Thursday, and inside a food court that's as bustling as a sports bar, students in Robert Morris University's Nicholson Center are polishing off dinner.

Sure, the tables are lively with nonstop chatter. But the conversation occurring only a few feet above them is every bit as continuous.

An array of big screen TVs mounted on walls continuously displays messages culled from nearly a dozen Twitter and other social media feeds on campus.

One message reminds students of the campus physician's office hours that Friday. Another one seconds later congratulates campus rugby players: "Good practice last night. See you Tuesday 10 p.m." In another, women lacrosse players mug enthusiastically for a photo that was snapped on a campus athletic field and later uploaded to Instagram.

The parade of words and images, interspersed with global news headlines, attracts varying degrees of notice from the diners, many seated with their smartphones at the ready, in case the device "blows up" with still more alerts to the community around them.

Welcome to campus life, social-media style.

It's no secret that teenagers texting since elementary school are liable to have been recruited to campuses with help from pitches delivered through Facebook or YouTube.

Or if not, at least they got a better idea of campus life while searching on their own through conversation threads and photos posted to Instagram and other platforms, often linked to the school's official website.

Once enrolled, the streams those students follow will become perhaps their primary way to keep up with events around them and to bond with peers, whether they are cheering at a crowded basketball game or sitting alone in their dorm room.

"If you go back 15 or 20 years, you would sit at a lunch table and spout off your opinions about the Steelers or their problems in the playoffs," said John Locke, Robert Morris director of student activities and leadership development. "Now, you take your strong opinions about the Steelers or about politics or whatever it is, and put it out there to the world."

The food court in the Nicholson Center alone has 31 big screen TVs, more than a dozen of which carry social media, Mr. Loche said. Then there are those elsewhere on campus, including the Alumni Commons Gazebo, a campus gathering spot.

Mr. Locke said students light up when they see a tweet or a photo they posted show up on the campus screens.

"It's empowering," he said.

That's assuming they can keep up with it all.

Consider Indiana University of Pennsylvania. It lists on its website nearly 200 links to campus-related social media sites and feeds, including the school's YouTube channel and Foursquare account. There's the Facebook page for the chemistry department, the equestrian team and the honors college, the LinkedIn account for Greek organizations and other groups, as well as Twitter feeds catering to interests ranging from study abroad to tennis.

West Virginia University has links to hundreds of feeds on its website. As final exams approached in the fall, WVU's health-related Twitter feed "WELLWVU" enabled the sprawling university of 30,000 students to serve up a dose of in loco parentis, reminding them to get enough sleep before exams.

"Be careful if you're on the roads," Cal U tweeted its followers during a recent winter storm.

Even though its students are commuters, the Community College of Allegheny County encourages its own community connection with nearly two dozen links to Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages.

And then, of course, there are unofficial feeds you're not likely to find linked to any campus website but nonetheless are informative barometers -- maybe the most informative barometers -- of student mood.

When a pizza shop in Oakland upped the price of a large pie to $6 around the holiday break, reaction was swift on feeds like @pantherprobs and @Souf_Oaklin.

"Starting in crisis mode," read one tweet on @pantherprobs.

Another post to @Souf_Oaklin took the rant even further: "Historians will trace the great Pizza riots that destroyed Oakland to this day."

But as useful as social media can be for broadcasting good old-fashioned campus kvetching -- "How can dorm room have no heat?" "My psych prof needs a life" -- the medium also is having very practical impacts everywhere from the classroom to the admissions office.

Duquesne University, for instance, is among campuses seeing a surge the past few years in applications from China, a top exporter of students.

One reason the school is increasingly on the radar of students in places such as Beijing and Guangzhou may be the virtual fairs and live chats Duquesne uses to reach prospects on Weibo, a state-sanctioned social media site in China, said Joe DeCrosta, director of Duquesne's international programs.

Some students already in the admissions pipeline are more likely to respond directly when approached through social media, than they are to respond to an email, he said.

A snapshot recently taken of actress and singer Amy Lou Adams wearing a Slippery Rock University T-shirt became a marketing moment for the state-owned university, as the picture received more than 1,000 likes after it was posted to the university's Facebook page. The school said Ms. Adams, who is not connected to Slippery Rock, was photographed during a shopping trip.

Other informal images snapped by students can have the same positive influence. They become part of a larger assortment of colorful, lively campus images useful to a prospective student who could be hundreds of miles away and might want information beyond the traditional data one turns up in a campus search.

"I was surprised by the number of photos," said Brandon Kreiser, 18, a Robert Morris freshman from Lebanon, Lebanon County, recounting his look at the university's site while still in high school.

Inside the Nicholson Center at Robert Morris, freshman Tina Sahr, 19, of Millvale talked of how she can communicate with professors about assignments on Blackboard, a learning management platform accessible on her cell phone.

"It's easier than going and finding a computer," she said.

She once grew so attached to Twitter on her phone that she actually deleted the app for a time, and she joked about her inability sometimes to give her roommate Ashley Miller her full attention in conversation.

"I'll be looking at my phone and the world is just like gone," she said.

But she and Ms. Miller, 18, a freshman of Beaver Falls, said there is no mistaking the value of the feeds that drain their attention but also allow them to keep up with their world.

"If I didn't have those," Ms. Miller said. "I don't know where I'd be."

Bill Schackner:

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