XXI.4 July + August 2014
Page: 62
Digital Citation

Social media and college access

Nicole Ellison, D. Wohn, Michael Brown

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Andy [1] is a junior in high school, living in a relatively rural part of Western Michigan. Like many teenage boys, he enjoys playing video games online through Xbox Live. Over time, he has developed friendships with a group of other players. He has never met them in person, but considers them friends and sometimes logs in just to socialize. Andy feels he has benefited from talking to these friends about their lives, and he considers their diverse experiences as he tries to make his own plans around life questions such as whether and when to go to college. As he told us, "Just talking to [Xbox] friends and their experiences in colleges and their experiences with life kind of gives me more of a look on what my future has to show. ... It's a good way to kind of piece everything together and try to set up a little sort of an outline on life."

Andy's comments were captured as part of an ongoing research study that explores the role of social media and other Internet tools in reshaping college-access patterns in the U.S. For Andy, the connection with older teens and adults through Xbox was particularly important because he perceived his friends at school and his family as representing only a small portion of the possibilities life could offer. Knowing people who were different from his day-to-day network enabled him to gain information and insight that he would not otherwise access.

back to top  Insights


The concept of benefiting from social ties is known in the academic literature as social capital. There are two types of social capital. Bonding social capital describes the resources one often gets through strong ties, such as emotional support or big favors like a financial loan. Bridging social capital, on the other hand, speaks to the resources one accesses through "bridging" ties—individuals who interact with, or connect, two groups of people who wouldn't otherwise be connected. Studies have shown that these weak connections are more likely to provide access to new information, people, and worldviews. For individuals who face systemic bias and are disadvantaged by the circumstances of their position in the larger society, bridging ties may be especially useful, as these connections can provide information and other resources that their day-to-day circles often lack. As social capital scholars note, bonding social capital is important for getting by, but bridging social capital is critical for changing one's life circumstances and getting ahead.

Like many of the adolescents who have participated in our research, Andy is a first-generation student, meaning he would be the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. He lives with his mom, who is struggling with debt and working on an associate's degree; his father did not go to college. The kind of hands-on help many with college-educated parents might receive—reminders about personal essays or how to select a portfolio of colleges to apply to—is unlikely to be available to him in his home. When viewed through the lens of social capital, Andy's lack of support around college-going behaviors is directly related to the composition of his social network and the kinds of interactions he is exposed to.

back to top  Social Capital and Social Media

According to some, we are in the middle of an era of unprecedented communication, in which interacting with different kinds of people should be as easy as opening a Web browser. Collectively, social media sites are hosting millions of conversations on a daily basis, everything from young people in a poor Kenyan settlement looking for work to new moms in New York City sharing their babies' first words. Facebook is one of the largest social media sites—currently it has more than 750 million active daily users—but there are thousands of other ways for people to connect with one another online to request help, information, or social support—or to just share quotidian experiences, like watching a pretty sunset.

So, compared with previous generations, we have more opportunities to communicate—but to what end? Are we engaging in online interactions in ways that will help kids like Andy access higher education and achieve his dream of becoming a music teacher? Are the hundreds of hours many of us spend on social media and online gaming a waste of time? Or are there some benefits to these activities?

Research in this area is still nascent in many ways, but some scholarship suggests that certain uses of Facebook can help individuals build social capital (e.g., [2,3])—especially bridging social capital. Facebook is well suited to facilitating bridging social capital because it lowers the barriers for interacting with weak ties. For example, we are able to keep in touch with high school friends with whom we otherwise would have lost touch, or interact with our Facebook friends' social connections by commenting on a mutual friend's post. These "friends of friends" are especially likely to be bridging ties and sources of novel information and different worldviews.

Our research in this area, together with that of other collaborators, has focused on high school students' use of social media in the context of college access. Higher education comes with a variety of benefits for individuals and society. For instance, college graduates earn more and have more job stability than those without college degrees. However, college access is not equitably distributed. Students who are poor, from families where neither parent graduated college, or who are black, Latino, or Native American are less likely to apply for, attend, and successfully graduate than peers who are white, wealthier, or have college-educated parents.

These characteristics are not unrelated, of course. Historically, one of the biggest barriers for low-income students has been access to information about college: how to navigate the application process, where to apply, how financial aid really works. This is partly because low-income students are more likely to be potential first-generation students, with parents who are less able to provide information about college or less likely to have experience navigating the arcane process of college admissions. First-generation students do not have the same access to information about college in the home as the children of college graduates, and their social networks are also less likely to be populated with individuals who have useful information to share about college life. Similarly, low-income students are less likely to encounter information about college in their everyday lives because they are more likely to attend under-resourced high schools and fewer of their older relatives, siblings, and peers attend college.


Ironically, today more information about college is online than ever before, theoretically lowering the barriers to accessing this information. However, the vast amount of information about college that is available online makes managing, organizing, and processing that information a substantial challenge. Recent interventions coordinated through H&R Block [4] and the College Board [5] have illustrated the effectiveness of personalized information in encouraging students to attend college and in helping students make informed decisions about where to apply and where to attend. In both interventions, students received information about the costs of college based on their specific circumstances, reducing some of the ambiguity in the college-choice process. The next challenge for increasing access to post-secondary education will be scaling these personalized information interventions. Online tools—services that enable young people to access personalized information and that help connect them with others who can provide information and social support—may be one way to address college-access disparities.


back to top  Making Personalized Information Scalable

Many of the resources that help us both get by, on a day-to-day basis, and get ahead are provided to us via our social ties. Social media such as social network sites (SNSs) enable us to digitally articulate our social connections and lower the barriers for requesting and providing information and social support. For the past three years, a group of researchers funded by the Gates Foundation has collected quantitative and qualitative data exploring the role of social media for first-generation, low-income and minority teens with regard to college-going. For one study, we surveyed 504 mostly white high school students in a suburban/rural part of Michigan [6]. Students who used social media to actively get information about college were more likely to have higher levels of confidence about the application process. Having someone in their Facebook network they could ask about college was related to stronger expectations of being successful at college. Interestingly, however, this relationship between Facebook use and college aspirations was present only among students whose parents did not graduate from college—students who had at least one parent who was a college graduate did not benefit from Facebook as much in comparison. In other words, for first-generation students, who presumably did not have college-information resources available in their household, social media seemed to serve as a useful source of informational and social support around the college-going process.

Most recently we conducted a series of interviews with black high school seniors and some juniors in Detroit. Our motivation was to better understand how this group used social media, specifically around college-going activities. We observed a number of ways in which students harnessed the power of social media to access and share information about college.

First, students formed direct ties with university institutional accounts on a number of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. These accounts served as information brokers, helping students identify the appropriate resource when they had questions about the application process or financial aid. Because much of what happens on social media is visible, archived, and persistent, these exchanges were made available to other users in students' networks, and these friends were able to provide additional information or benefit indirectly from the exchanges.

Having someone in their Facebook network they could ask about college was related to stronger expectations of being successful at college.

For instance, one student, Kayla, made a practice of tweeting to the Twitter accounts of colleges and universities where she had been accepted. One of the institutions tweeted back with the URL of a special website for admitted students about financial aid. Kayla's followers, some of whom were current college students, gave her feedback on the kinds of questions she should ask about financial aid. Her high school friends later told her that they had learned useful information about the college application process from observing her exchanges online. Social media shaped this exchange in two powerful and specific ways: It expanded Kayla's social capital by allowing different users in her network to observe her interactions with the school in a public forum and provide real-time feedback on her information seeking. And it allowed Kayla, who will be the first in her family to go to college, to engage in direct dialogue with representatives of an educational institution.

Students also used social media to explore potential future pathways. We met many students who included aspirational colleges or universities in the Network section of their Facebook profiles, created usernames such as "college kid," or described themselves in their Twitter and Instagram profiles as college-bound. When we asked about these practices, they asserted that it was important for people within their network to view them as a college-goer. These students used social media to share information with the world, not just to access it—information about their college-going aspirations that may have garnered them valuable support from their network and helped them in their transition from high school student to college-goer.

The potential for social media to help address college-access issues has not gone unnoticed. Several organizations, including the Gates Foundation, the King Center Charter School, and College Summit, came together recently to support the development of software apps, games, and websites aimed at harnessing the power of social media for the purpose of addressing specific college-access challenges. The College Knowledge Challenge funded the development of a wide range of platforms that help students at various stages of the process, from awareness to graduation. For example, College Connect, a Facebook application developed by the first author and colleagues at the University of Oxford and Michigan State University, provides students with the ability to access a network visualization of their Facebook friends network, highlighting individuals who list a college or university in their profile and thus might be more likely to help answer a college-related question. Another Facebook application, FastForward, helps students throughout the K-12 and post-secondary pipeline develop plans for their future careers. Students choose a field of study and potential profession, and then FastForward provides a visualization of their Facebook feed that illustrates a pathway toward achieving that career. For instance, a student might see screenshots of themselves posting about graduating college with congratulatory comments from their Facebook friends. FastForward's imaginary feed identifies major milestones for students and uses images of users from a student's network to provide encouraging (imagined) feedback.

back to top  Conclusion

Our studies have given us the opportunity to meet many different kinds of adolescents, each with their own challenges and their own ways of meeting these challenges. Although it's easy to be pessimistic about some of the social trends being enacted via social media, our work with young people has made us optimistic about the potential for Internet technologies to be used in ways that can change lives. We encourage other researchers and designers to consider how to create tools and experiences that can increase access to education and other benefits, for all kinds of people across the lifespan and throughout the globe.

This work is not always easy. Only by making a concerted effort to recruit participants from diverse populations will researchers and designers be able to understand the diversity of structured and ad-hoc practices and to account for them in the interventions they create. Life transitions are a particularly challenging time for many individuals. Better tools to support these changes, such as easier ways to segment audiences in social media, might facilitate network and identity transitions for high school seniors as well as others going through significant life changes, such as a divorce, college graduation, or moving. Making personalized information more accessible is another way in which designers can support positive change. Our participants were generally able to access online information, but this information was not always usable, understandable, or even correct. We are excited about the potential of social media tools in the area of college access and other domains where designers, researchers, and technologists have the potential to help individuals as they work to change their lives by creating transformative tools and experiences for learners of all ages.

back to top  References

1. The names of our participants have been replaced with pseudonyms.

2. Burke, M., Kraut, R., and Marlow, C. Social capital on Facebook: Differentiating uses and users. Proc. CHI 2011.

3. Ellison, N.B., Wohn, D.Y., and Greenhow, C. Adolescents' visions of their future careers, educational plans, and life pathways: The role of bridging and bonding social capital experiences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 31, 4 (2014), 516–534.

4. Bettinger, E.P., Long, B.T., Oreopoulos, P., and Sanbonmatsu, L. The role of simplification and information in college decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment. NBER Working Paper No. 1536. Sept. 2009.

5. Leonhardt, D. A simple way to send poor kids to top colleges. The New York Times. Mar. 29, 2013;

6. Wohn, D.Y., Ellison, N.B., Khan, M.L., Fewins-Bliss, R., and Gray, R. The role of social media in shaping first-generation high school students' college aspirations: A social capital lens. Computers and Education 63 (2013), 424–436.

back to top  Authors

Nicole B. Ellison is an associate professor in the School of Information at the University of Michigan.

D. Yvette Wohn is an assistant professor of HCI at New Jersey Institute of Technology

Michael G. Brown is a doctoral student in the Center for the Study of Higher and Post-Secondary Education in the School of Education at the University of Michigan.

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