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

Linda Peckham, M.Ed
Senior Training Strategist
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.

The Financial Education Fairy Comes to Town

 

Sarah Arslanian
ASA Regional Account Executive Pacific Northwest

 

 

What I Love

There are a few things that I really love in life, beyond the obvious family and friends.   Food, art, music – sure, I like all that too.  Asking total strangers where they are going to college and have they yet applied for financial aid?  Now THAT is what I love. (By the way, this usually happens at the grocery store check-out line, or some other circumstance that prevents them from escaping the conversation).  I am obsessed as to why they do or do not go, what they want to study, what they want to do when they graduate.  Fortunately for me our local grocery store has horrendous lines, allowing for some hard hitting higher education chat from yours truly.  I could go on and on about some of the conversations, but will leave that to future blogs.

Beyond my love of educational access for all, I am a huge fan of contemporary learning modules – a fancy-scholarly-way of saying this: We all learn in different ways – let’s figure out new and exciting ways to educate those around us.   This idea that we all respond and retain information in a number of ways has always been interesting to me.  Finally, I love the little joys in life, like babies, the ocean, surprises and cookies. So, if I am a fan of educational access and disseminating information in *interesting ways*, plus the “little joys” in life – what could I possibly do with it?

Why, I would create a mechanism by which to provide handy financial (education) tips to those who may not have access to say, social media or newspapers or any of the usual sources, of course.  Leave the information out for the public to find and see how they respond to it.  I thought a lot about my love of cookies (joy!) and then I started to think about how a cookie could be the vehicle to get the information out to folks.  Kind of like a fortune cookie!  I was nearly about to bake a batch of cookies with some sort of financial literacy message in it, when I stopped myself.  What stranger is going to want to eat a cookie that I made for them, much less a cookie with a message in it that isn’t a fortune cookie? (By the way, you can order custom fortune cookies ~Here~ )  A plan B was in order.

Plan B: One’s Loss is Another’s Great Idea?

Plan B was hatched as a result of my encountering a somewhat sad, though universal experience.  I was at the local farmer’s market this past weekend when I saw a little girl and her mom walk past me.  The little girl loved her balloon, so much so that she thought it necessary to squeeze it as much as possible.  I could tell her mom was fighting the urge to tell her to knock it off by the way she clenched her fists and pursed her lips.  Sure enough, the balloon popped and the girl cried.  Her mother sighed and said nothing.  Me?  I figured out how I was going to spread the financial education message.  Via a balloon.  Thank you little crying girl and uptight mother!  (By the way, I have a 5 year old myself, and am no stranger to the clenched-fist-tight-lipped look.  I am in fact convinced that my face will get stuck that way at some point.  No judgment there!)

 

Introducing: The Red Balloon and the Financial Education Fairy 

Who doesn’t love the look of a balloon?  Full of hope, aiming high, colorful outlook….   Some of you may even remember the short film the Red Balloon from back in the day.  Anyway, I digress…. Now I needed to come up with just the right message.  This came a little more easily.  I was digging around in my purse trying to find some money to buy, wait for it, expensive coffee at an expensive coffee house. Once I found the rogue twenty spot I thought I should instead be putting the money in the bank, rather than spend it on this beverage that is not all that good for me.  There was my “a-ha!” moment.  I took my fancy coffee without a second thought, sat down at the table and wrote the following down:

***Courtesy of Your Financial Education Fairy***

On the back of the paper, I wrote:

Questions?  Me too!

Did you find this information useful, fun, interesting?  Let me know!

Additionally, I left an email address that I rarely use so they can respond

Party City : Worse than the Mall During the Holidays

I do not have to say much here other than the entire store oozed “party” from floor to ceiling and I made it a point to get out in under 10 minutes, otherwise I may have passed out.  I marched in, asked the young man behind the counter if he could please “cram this message in to a balloon for me?”  I was sure that I was going to get some grief for this.  I anticipated the boy to say in an ever-changing Peter Brady voice. “I’m sorry ma’am we can’t”.  (If you are of a certain age, you will absolutely remember this Brady Bunch episode.)  The young man instead said “sure” and happily did as I had asked, upon which I wrote with a Sharpie:

Parking Can Be Fun

I found that driving around town with a balloon attacking me from the back seat was not a heck of a lot of fun.  Therefore, I needed to off load the Red Balloon as soon as possible.  I pulled up in front of a toy store in downtown Vancouver, and tried my best to parallel-park.  I had thought I would leave the balloon somewhere across the street at Esther Short Park , but due to my, creative parking job, I chose instead to leave the balloon wrapped around the parking meter.  (Why not have the financial education fairy leave such tips where people are spending money?)  It was kind of thrilling tying the balloon around the parking meter and then taking pictures.  I figured that if I looked like this was what I was supposed to be doing, no one would question it.  Hopefully someone has already popped it!

My Hope Is…

That whoever pops this balloon will think about their spending habits, open up a bank account if they do not have one or even just savor the sweet moment of finding a little surprise on a parking meter.  Who knows when and where you might find a Red Balloon around your town.  Keep your eyes peeled! Or maybe spread the financial education fairy’s message yourself.  I spent a total of $1.08 on the whole thing.  Invaluable, I think!