@FinancialAidOffice: Go social!

How financial aid administrators create a proactive outreach plan that students will like and follow

No one would deny that college students spend a good part of the day with eyes locked on their mobile devices, scrolling through social media feeds.

Despite that clear trend, just 30 percent of financial aid professionals reported using social media to provide financial literacy content to their constituents, notes the “2016 Financial Literacy Trends on Campus Report” from Iontuition, a provider of student loan tools.

Consider that the average college has 2.8 employees to serve every 1,000 financial aid applicants, according to NASFAA’s “2015 Administrative Burden Survey.” Is it any wonder that few officers find room on the to-do list for figuring out how best to use Facebook and Instagram?

However, financial aid offices that invest time on the major platforms say social media lightens the workload. On a higher level, social networks represent another way to provide students with financial literacy education that can advance institutional goals, including better retention and lower cohort default rates.

Building social momentum

One benefit of social activity is that it can help institutions reduce financial aid office call volume.

At Michigan State University, staff used to field a lot of requests to walk students through applying for a loan or a computer grant, among other general questions. In the past couple of years, they have launched a social media initiative to create a Vimeo video library with information ranging from “What is an EFC?” to how to apply for a loan. “We embed those videos on our Facebook and Twitter posts as well, and receive quite a few plays each month,” says Chandra Owen, training coordinator in the office of financial aid.

Administrators at Wittenburg University in Ohio have found social media to be effective in disseminating information to parents. “We were getting a lot of inquires from moms and dads,” says Doug Schantz, director of the Office of Student Accounts. “We now encourage them to like us on Facebook so they’re kept up to speed on what important deadlines are coming. It’s helped cut down on the amount of calls and questions coming into our office.”

Going social can positively impact retention and student loan default rates as well.

“It’s in a school’s best interest to make sure students can manage their money for retention, so students don’t find themselves unable to afford to come back,” says Mary Johnson, vice president of financial literacy and student aid policy at Higher One, which provides grant support for campus financial literacy programs.

And students who drop out are four times more likely to default on loans. “That’s a huge motivation to want to better prepare students, most of whom are not aware of how much they owe or are confused by prepayment options,” she adds. “Schools have more work to do.”

Many institutions realize that going where the students “live” is vital for keeping them informed. Students have even come to expect social media channels to provide information about campus events, student life, sports news, enrollment deadlines, campus closings and security updates, says Caitlin Anderson, marketing manager of Nelnet Business Solutions. “Why not financial literacy education as well?”

The benefits are threefold, she adds. “Students learn about more options to pay for college, colleges have higher tuition collection rates, and graduates don’t have to be left with overwhelming amounts of student debt.”

Colleges aiming to expand their financial literacy and loan default prevention initiatives might take a page out of State University of New York at Cobleskill’s playbook. Staff there deployed a social strategy to expand financial literacy and default prevention initiatives.

Louise Biron, director of financial aid, uses social media to continue the momentum of the school’s 8-percentage-point default rate decrease (16.9 in 2010 to 8.9 in 2012, the most recent data available). “We began experimenting with alternative ways to communicate with students when it became apparent how little they would read about financial aid voluntarily,” she says. Her office’s email open rates are usually in the 20 percent to 45 percent range. To help expand that reach, Biron began using social media and has gotten a great response.

Getting started: Social media basics

Whether announcing financial aid workshops and deadlines, promoting scholarships or dispensing broader guidance, social media can be an extension of the financial aid office and, ultimately, can help students become better money managers. Here are best practices for starting a social media account:

  • Create a social media policy. It’s important to have a document that anyone on your social team can easily refer to, says Temeka Easter, senior director of social media at Sallie Mae. The policy should cover who can post and approve content, what happens when someone shares nonpublic information, a crisis-response plan, and how archives are managed. But there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel. The marketing/communications department will likely have guidelines that can be used as a template.
  • Know your objectives. This is key to Andrea Pellegrini, assistant director of the Student Money Management Center at the University of Illinois, which serves all three of its campuses. Once you’ve identified the institutional goals you want to address, make sure content is targeted toward them. For instance, during “America Saves” week this past February, students painted piggy banks at a campus financial workshop. Pellegrini made sure that many photos were taken and shared. “We saw a lot of extra activity and awareness because students tagged themselves,” she says.
  • Work with other departments. At Wittenburg, financial aid and student accounts have overlapping outreach initiatives, even though they are separate departments, Schantz says. “Social media can help to bring departments together to work on similar goals.” Collaborating with the teams running the main campus social accounts—usually in marketing—can also result in more financial office follows.
  • Lean on partners. If your institution works with financial services providers, ask them how they can help. Inceptia, a nonprofit providing assistance in default prevention, hosted the free webinar in 2014 titled “Developing a Social Media Program that Delivers,” which shared best practices and is now available online. Another ready-to-help resource is Sallie Mae’s free social media toolkit, which contains ready-to-post financial content. (See “Free resources for financial aid office outreach” in the online version of this article.)

Already on? Advanced social media tips

Creating a profile and putting up a few posts is just the beginning. Building a following of engaged users is key to maximizing social media. Here are some strategies to amplify a financial aid department’s message:

  • Use an editorial calendar. Schedule updates to coincide with campus events and upcoming deadlines. Owen at Michigan State says she follows the registrar’s calendar, FAFSA deadlines, semester drop/add dates, etc. “It gives us a guide to develop messages.”
  • Mix it up. “If you’re just putting out deadlines and nothing of substance, students are going to be disengaged,” says Schantz. His strategy comprises three types of posts. One-third are about his department, including deadlines and resources available. “The second third would be about things going on at your institution, like your volleyball team making it to the championship,” Schantz says. “The last third can focus on general topics and national news, such as if there’s an article that talks about how to decorate your dorm on a budget.”
  • Keep it simple. Offer bite-sized nuggets of information—or what Biron refers to as “microlearning.” Don’t put out text-heavy documents. Biron of SUNY Cobleskill found that a short, animated video explaining a single concept—such as what a subsidized loan is—is an easily digestible format. University of Illinois’ Pellegrini also favors keeping the tone lighthearted and fun so students will be more receptive when she has to deploy the “scarier,” more serious types of financial information.
  • Use social tools. Hootsuite and Buffer, among other tools, allow you to set your social media activity on cruise control, scheduling posts and monitoring progress, says Schantz. “We all have full-time jobs and social media isn’t something we can prioritize all the time.”
  • Practice social listening. You don’t have to wait for students to come to you—reach out to them, says Brittany Broderick, digital marketing specialist with American Student Assistance, which partners with colleges to deliver SALT, a responsible borrower program. “Unlike a blog or email, social media is meant to be a conversation.”

Owen uses TweetDeck’s keyword monitoring function to “listen in” on student concerns at Michigan State so she can offer assistance when appropriate. “I’ve had students who’ve tweeted, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to pay for my summer course,’ and then I’ve sent an email that says, ‘It looks like you might be eligible for this type of aid,’ ” she explains. “A lot of times they’re surprised and delighted to get a response.”

Financial aid officers should understand that social media is way past its experimental stage, says Sallie Mae’s Easter. “It’s vitally important for schools to have a presence and be active. It’s often the first place students turn for help, so it makes sense to be in that space and be part of the conversation.”

Dawn Papandrea, a regular contributor to UB, is based on Staten Island, New York.


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