There is One Secret Not Being Explored In Order to Secure the Fall 2020 Class

Incoming Students Crave Connection to Each Other

Graduating from the college in the early 1990s, I remember thinking (more like mourning) that almost all of my college friends were married within a few years out of college. Working within universities since that time, my perception of this rate of marriage after college has only slightly lessened. This hypothesis was confirmed when I found that in a 2013 study, almost 30% of couples were finding their spouse in college and another 15% in high school.  So even in the age of the iPhone and internet, almost half of the married nation is finding their spouse in high school or college.

This fact illuminates the power of propinquity in finding friends. In other words, the people who we will know the best will be those with whom we share the greatest physical vicinity. Recent research suggests that the reason for this is the amount of time we spend with people is a strong predictor of friendship.  In a 2018 study, researchers discovered that:

Casual friendships emerge around 30 hr, followed by friendships around 50 hr. Good friendships begin to emerge after 140 hr. Best friendships do not emerge until after 300 hr of time spent.

This extensive time together building a memorable experience is one of the reasons universities have been so successful over centuries. Colleges are literally, friendship, marriage, and mentorship machines. By taking hundreds, if not thousands, of primarily late-teens and cramming them into residence halls, we have the first ingredients of relationship formation ready. Hundreds of studies have demonstrated the powerful impact of residence halls in forming a sense of belonging that is strongly linked to increased retention and graduation.

Second, we require students to interact with their faculty members in class for only ~15 hours per week.  If they want, they can get to know their faculty members more during office hours, but anecdotal knowledge and research have shown that office hour use by students is rare and the majority of visits are less than ten minutes (Nadler & Nadler, 2000). A 2017 article in the Journal of Scholarly Teaching was titled even titled, “Office Hours are Kind of Weird,” confirming most students’ perceptions.

Third, outside of class, students are only studying ~15 hours per week. Even though the federal definition of a credit hour explicitly states that students will spend two hours per week reading and studying for every one hour in class, twenty years of the National Survey of Student Engagement data from thousands of colleges surveying over a million students has demonstrated that the college students on average spend a little over one hour per week studying for each hour in class.

The result of these three factors, as briefly described in “How to foster student success outside of online classes,” is that students have ~80 hours week to hang out and build relationships that last, in many cases, a lifetime.

The Problem

The COVID-19 pandemic has destroyed the hallmarks of the college experience. One of the main challenges facing the ~2,500 four-year colleges in the U.S. right now is how to create the transformational experience of a physical campus in an online setting. If these colleges are not able to articulate how they will do this in the fall of 2020, students are not going to pay the premium asked of them for this experience. There are several avenues for developing a student sense of connection to your institution using an online setting. In the rest of this article, I would like to tell you about one practice that could significantly impact your students’ yield and retention.

Create a friend-making setting for students

I recently watched The Social Network, a movie that loosely chronicled the development of Facebook. What the movie reminded me was that pre-Facebook, there were many university facebooks. In fact, I have a copy of my college’s 1988 “The Faces Book” which included me and fellow first year student Tina Fey. So when Zuckerberg got the idea for an online faces book for all of Harvard in December 2003, it did not surprise many people that it was going to be successful. Literally, within the first 24 hours of creating the site for Harvard, approximately 1,500 students had signed up and started using it.

If you watch the movie, one of the most important factors of Facebook’s popularity, early on, was its exclusivity. People without a “Harvard.edu” email address could not join the website. Before Facebook, the only times when most students at a college might come together was at a sporting event (for sports enthusiasts) or at orientation or graduation (really just one quarter of students). But in the new Facebook, all the students of the university could connect with each other.

When I arrived in 2010 as the Dean for Student Learning & Engagement at Baylor, I became involved in strengthening the deposit and yield rate of incoming students. I soon noticed that each year one or two initiative-taking incoming students would create an incoming student Facebook group. As a “student” of students and their engagement, I studied this group. Each year I was given access to the group to read what high school seniors who were coming to Baylor were talking about nine months before they even arrived!

In most years, the first wave of admitted students created and/or discovered the group in November or December. A routine of topics emerged each year, in which students would begin by making an introduction to their fellow admittees. They would then use their introductions to recognize geographic connections. By identifying who was coming to Baylor from their home state or city, they were able to share mobile numbers and create a group text that allowed for smaller scale connection and friendship development. Eventually I discovered that many of these groups were organizing social hangouts in their respective locations and starting to form friendships with their soon-to-be classmates.

In January, most of the students in the group would start to talk about which dorms to live in and in February the conversations would center around specific living-learning centers (LLCs) (over half of Baylor’s freshman live in an LLC or residential college). In March, the topic of conversation became which of Baylor’s ten Orientation sessions or eight Line Camps (extended orientation experiences) students were attending. A group text for each session would result and further conversations would ensue. In April, many students said goodbye to their virtual friends as they came to realize that they could not afford Baylor with the financial aid package they received. Interestingly, most of the high school seniors who decided to go elsewhere stayed in the group – I am guessing this was because of the friendships they had made. Their peers in the group would often beg and plead with them to come to Baylor, often suggesting significant debt so that they could be together. As today’s youth are apt to do, they would periodically swear lifelong allegiance to each other, even though they had never met face-to-face. This online connection is mirrored in the research indicating at least one-third of marriages today are the result of online relationships (and the locations where these partners are found are most often are online dating (45%), social networking (21%), and chat rooms (10%).)

Once orientation started in June, I remember seeing groups of students gathering together on the morning of the first day. I assumed this was because they had attended the same high school. What I learned was that this was sometimes the case – but often it was a group of new students who had met in the incoming student Facebook group and were meeting each other in person for the first time.  In fact, in one memorable instance, at the start of the opening session of one of the orientation sessions, there were a group of fathers in the front row high fiving and hugging each other. From the stage, the university chaplain asked them if they had gone to Baylor together and they responded by telling him they were all meeting for the first time in person – they had become friends through the Incoming Parent Facebook Group and had arranged to meet in the front row at the first session!

After several years of watching these groups of incoming students form online, I noticed two things:

  • First, I was not the only person who realized that these groups were incredible opportunities for influence. The race to establish the first and best incoming student Facebook group became important and students were not the only ones starting the groups. A number of college-student focused companies started hiring young staff and training them on how to initiate incoming student Facebook groups at colleges across the country. It took me a while to realize this was happening. I kept getting confused as to why various “new Baylor” students were trying to sell so many things to their peers. It took a savvy social media colleague to help me understand that since there was not university oversight for these groups that they had become the “Wild West” of marketing and there were businesses taking advantage of the new students’ trust in what they thought was their fellow student to tell them what they needed to buy in order to “successful” in college.
  • Second, after learning about this trend, I asked the admissions team about formally taking the lead in overseeing these groups. While admissions was supportive of the idea, they indicated that they already had social media accounts (including Facebook). They also shared that they had learned what most university social media sites eventually discover – that university-sponsored social media is really a platform for pushing out great content that does not result in quality member-to-member interaction.

It was around this time, in 2015, when my staff and I realized that we needed help and expertise in communicating effectively to this generation of students. Landlines were disconnected, mobile numbers were not easily accessible, emails had become junk mail, flyers were useless fire hazards, campus radio stations were relics, and a small percentage of students indicated they read the student newspaper.  Local apartment complexes, in an effort to maintain occupancy, were even hiring planes to fly back and forth over campus with advertising and/or hiring large trucks emblazoned with their apartment deals to drive around campus for hours each day.

We created a student outreach and engagement coordinator role in 2016. In November of 2016, he created the first Baylor University Class of 2021 (Official University Sponsored) Facebook group.  Thanks to his work with Admissions, every admitted student’s offer letter included a link to this Facebook Group. Soon, thousands of students were using the group for the same reason as described earlier in this article.  To maintain distance between the high school seniors and university staff, we hired an upperclass student to monitor the page and periodically and subtly message current Baylor happenings and correct any miscommunication fellow students were giving their peers.

We learned that these groups have a lifespan that winds down once students arrive on campus. The physical setting and in-person relationships begin to outweigh online communication. However, I am a believer that the online groups we created, which often led to even smaller group connections, were a powerful form of student-to-student connection which could easily be replicated for not only the fall 2020 new students, but the entire student body.

I encourage other universities to take the lessons we have learned to explore the creation of virtual communities for students to connect, bond, and build memories. If you chose to give this a go, the following questions might help you get started:

  • As with all projects, what are your primary goals and what will be your measure(s) of success?
  • Who will oversee, and I mean that loosely, the group (do not post much at all)?
  • Will Admissions help the group form by messaging new admits? Will Student Life help by messaging all students?
  • Will students be admitted to the group based on some university identifier (e.g. ID#) or removed once they say something inappropriate and you discover they are not an incoming student?
  • Where will the group be housed? Facebook?  Instagram?  Twitter or one of the emerging friend-making platforms/apps? (which I really don’t know anything about)
  • Do you have current undergraduate students who might like to help with this project (ideally they are paid)?
  • What are a few open-ended prompt questions that result in stronger interpersonal connection that could be posed to students in this group?
  • How often will the site be checked and who will remove any inappropriate posts (rare but possible)?
  • Could your marketing team come up with an attractive logo/profile image to use at the site?
  • How might you incorporate video sharing by students to strengthen the connection?

Remember, almost all universities are trying to learn how to get students to come in the fall – it is time to step out of the box and try some new things. This might be one.

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