The Challenge of Being Poor at America’s Richest Colleges

I recently read an article on Forbes that really pulled on my heart strings. It was about society’s and policy’s continual focus on making elite higher education more accessible to low income students, but the gap that exists between receiving an acceptance letter and the next 4 years on campus. Overall, the challenge for low-income students does not end with admittance to a prestigious university, and it can be argued that unfortunately it seems really only begin at that point.

When we think of collegiate rights of passage, typically the first things that come to mind involve dining hall meals, all nighters and living in a dorm. However, for students who are financially privileged, collegiate rights of passage often also include spring break excursions to exotic locations, buying the $250 textbook, and having the ability to purchase an expensive and polished looking suit for a last minute job interview or career fair. To illustrate the economic disparities between students at prestigious institutions, as the Forbes article points out “At Harvard, 45.6% of undergraduates come from families with incomes above $200,000 — in other words, incomes in the top 3.8% of all American households.”

Overall, I find this data to be troubling, as our elite institutions are not nearly as diverse as we would like to think. I also cannot help but wonder of the role that technology can play in this issue – for both leveling the playing field and resources available for students of less privileged socioeconomic backgrounds, and exacerbating the differences the experiences they have.

Is there such a thing as technological inequality on our college campuses?

Technological inequality is having the refurbished tablet PC or even being without a laptop, when your classmates are all sporting trendy MacBook Pros, retailing at over $1,000. Technological inequality is not being able to check your email throughout the day on the smartphone that you cannot afford, and missing that message about last minute extended office hours. Technological inequality is missing precious moments of valuable study time, because you do not have the ability to download the latest flashcard mobile app to study your Spanish vocab on the go.

I just wanted to create this post to raise awareness about the role that technology can play in perpetuating inequality on campus. I am aware that some schools have laptop loan programs, but the real problem is more systemic and deeper than that. Technology is nearly synonymous with innovation, and those of us in higher education, whether it is administration, student life, teaching, or tech, can use that innovative spark to find a solution for these issues.


The ROI on Higher Education’s Use of Social Media

In post-recession American, the organizational focus on the bottom line and the return on investment has becoming increasingly focused on in an organization’s strategy. Even within the realm of higher education, where we are not necessarily as profit focused as private business enterprises, return on investment is still an important metric of success. According to a recent article featured on Inside Higher Education, college administrators are more confident than ever that social media outlets are useful to achieving institutional goals and that their own institutions have been more successful than ever. However, the exact metrics for measuring this success remain a challenge.

I recommend taking a look at the 2012 Topline report on Social Media & Advancement Research, a study that focuses on how institutions (mainly colleges and universities) use social media related activities. In summation of the report’s key findings, about 96% of respondents agreed that “social media have great potential for achieving important goals in my unit.” An additional 90% responded that their unit’s social media efforts are at least “somewhat successful.” And a promising 86% reported they disagreed that it is “too soon to say whether social media will be useful at all in our line of work.”

For a social media enthusiast like myself, the Topline survey results are a great sign of success – however, understanding the exact “outcomes” of social media efforts and campaigns are a bit more elusive. To give an example, as the Inside Higher Ed article mentioned, most administrators looked to at criteria such as “the number of ‘active’ friends, likes, members, people who post, or number of comments” as metrics for evaluating their social media success. While these metrics are important, they are also a bit crude, in the sense that they represent the most basic of social media activities. This raises the question as to if it is more important to count the number of likes, or focus on the level of influence wielded by those who like your posts.

The quintessential quality over quantity debate.

My opinion is that both matter for different reasons – and even if most of your “likers” are not highly influential, you never know who could find your social media profile through many degrees of separation. However, I do think it is important for higher education institutions to encourage the use of social media in an intelligent and mindful way – and I am not quite sure if a “follow” or a “like” is truly a genuine interaction.

As I also mentioned in a recent post – we are still learning about social media’s best practices and will be for the foreseeable future. If the Topline report results were not enough, for anyone who may need a reminder about the power we posses at our fingertips and laptops screens when we use social media for both personal and professional purposes, I recommend this inspiring video clip.


Why We Will Always Be Learning About Social Media


We will always be learning about social media.

This is something I was thinking of in reflection to a previous post about the Bureau of Labor Statistics job categories finally being revamped to include social media related positions. Social media is extremely unique as a communications medium – it can almost be considered to be its own living and breathing entity that is perpetually growing and changing on its own. Unlike telephone, email, text message, or even the dreaded fax machine, the platforms used for social media engagement keep growing and changing as the internet and our technology that supports it (example: mobile platforms) continues to do so. Even in my role working in an office of a higher education institution, I find that there are people who are very well versed in social media platforms and then those who are just trying to reach for a basic understanding. There is a huge spectrum of individual variance when it comes to comfort level with social media.

Even in my role within university career services and career counseling, we constantly expand our social media usage. In this past year alone, our office has joined Facebook and Twitter, in the hopes of better connecting to students and alumni who are active on social media. We have also recently installed flat-screen tv panels into the waiting areas of the office, so students can continue to be engaged with useful career development material even while waiting for their appointment or campus interview. The screens are programmed weekly to include content for career-related panels and workshops held in our office or on campus that week. We also use the screens to feature “alumni spotlights” showcasing brief bios and the careers of university alumns, and “fast facts” for quick tips related to resumes, cover letters, interviewing, job searching, and basically all steps of career development through freshman year to graduation day.

We have made great gains in 2013 with these recent developments in the social media usage of my particular office, but by no means are we about to rest on our laurels. As social media and technology continues to change, we will continue to change our strategy to best harness the power and resources it offers. To acknowledge that we will always be learning about social media is not to admit a lack of knowledge or ameturization, but shows a level of professionalism and commitment to excellence in that we are constantly reevaluating best practices in light of future technological developments. I truly believe this mindset is essential to those working within higher education – we need to keep up with our trend setting students!