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Universities turn to MySpace to befriend students

Online networks promote, recruit

Kate Keith’s volleyball team didn’t fare so well, but she was cool with it. Her computer has been having some problems, and she had a physics test Thursday.

Lipscomb University is using the mundane details of her life to market the school — anyone can read about Keith on her blog, hosted on Lipscomb’s admissions office Web site. Lipscomb also launched its own online social network in hopes that students who have been admitted will eschew MySpace or Facebook — at least for a few minutes — to meet people they might actually see on campus.

The move is part of an increased focus among Middle Tennessee universities to connect with high school students who judge a school by its Web presence. Schools design their own YouTube, Facebook and MySpace pages in the hope that potential students “friend” them and increase the schools’ exposure.

“They’re part of this Web 2.0 generation that has the idea that the Internet is about community,” said Lipscomb’s senior director for enrollment, Corey Patterson.

Patterson approached Keith about starting her blog, a first for the school, to give new and prospective students an idea of what to expect at Lipscomb.

“I really just treat it almost like a journal,” said Keith, a freshman from Madison who is studying public relations. “It’s fun to be able to talk about your friends a little.”

Other schools are taking the same route as Lipscomb, developing Web content they hope students will use daily, even before they step on campus.

“My belief is in the next couple of years, that will be how most interaction takes place at an institution,” said Vanderbilt University admissions dean Doug Christiansen.

Vanderbilt is developing its presence on Facebook and MySpace and is renovating its admissions Web site, Christiansen said. The school even has its own YouTube page, mostly composed of conference videos and weekly newscasts from the school’s public relations arm.

Belmont University and Lipscomb have taken their online presence a step further: The schools host their own networking sites exclusively for incoming students, who can create their own profiles and meet their new best friends before they reach campus.

Belmont Buddies predates Facebook — and looks like it. Pages on Belmont Buddies normally consist of a bio paragraph, a small photo and a link to the student’s MySpace page.

“I met a few people in there that I’m still friends with now,” said Belmont junior Shanna Stewart, who signed up for Belmont Buddies shortly after she found out she was accepted.

Stewart searched for fellow nursing majors, and also for people who like country music and share her taste in books.

Not all are impressed

Lipscomb’s The Quad, described by Patterson as a “Facebook-MySpace hybrid,” launched in February. The site’s home page shows off the top five users by their profile views, so visitors know who’s running up a cool quotient.

But Franklin Road Academy senior Kevin Heim said he doesn’t see the point. He gets more out of video campus tours than from a chance to enter a school’s exclusive online club.

“I think it’s neat, but I think it’s a little bit redundant with Facebook,” Heim said. “It’s something else to keep up with.”

And that’s the game schools have to play in the new world of Internet recruiting, as they try to figure out what works. Austin Peay State University has its own MySpace profile, but so far, the school has mostly attracted alumni and current students — and the potential for unwanted guests.

“You have to stay on the ball, watching your friends and your comments,” said APSU Web designer Steve Wilson. “You really have to watch it.”

Administrators say the risk is worth trying to capture what Patterson calls “stealth applicants” — students who apply without ever speaking to anyone at the school.As recruiters’ phone calls give way to e-mails, a school’s online presence could be the difference.

“We’re giving them ways to share about themselves,” Lipscomb’s Patterson said. “Picking a college is not just about where you can get the most information. It’s where you can grow and be who you’re designed to be.”

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