The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the higher education sector in more ways than one: campuses closed, and universities were forced to embrace remote teaching models and scramble to fill gaps in digital capabilities. Despite massive endowment growth for elite universities in 2021, the pandemic has encouraged many prospective students and families to question the sticker price of higher ed and reconsider traditional education paths – causing even more competition and anxiety for enrollment offices.

Research conducted in 2020 by Ipsos showed that more than one third (36%) of global respondents disagree with the statement that in-person higher education is worth it’s cost; that number rises to 47% in the US where tuition fees rank among the most expensive worldwide. With undergraduate enrollment down 3.5% in 2021 vs. the previous year, and a 22% drop in students going directly from high school to college, the battle for universities to attract students is on.

Accelerated by the pandemic (and other trends like increased social media adoption among students and professors alike, the growth of online communities and platforms for prospective students, and the availability of online programs), more and more universities are turning to social listening to attract and retain students because it:

  • Allows them to track and improve brand health. College controversies have become a part of mainstream (and social media) conversation. For example, online mentions about the Varsity Blues college admission scandal rose by 565% in March 2021 with the release of Netflix’s Operation Varsity Blues documentary. With social listening, universities can monitor conversations to preempt and measure the effectiveness of their crisis communications; one Synthesio client set up an alerting system to receive notifications anytime conversations about protests or scandals related to the university emerged online.
  • Delivers key competitive insights. Colleges spend billions on marketing to differentiate from competitors and attract students. As the pool of prospective students shrinks, competitive intelligence has become instrumental to recruitment efforts. Social listening tools allow schools to track online conversations to see what students – and even professors – are saying about top competitors across a number of topics like admissions, scholarships, online learning, student life, and more.
  • Provides critical input into strategic decisions. The pandemic forced universities to make difficult, often controversial decisions about return to in-person learning and vaccination requirements. It has also spurred many universities to make their “contingency plans” permanent offerings in the form of new online programs. With social data, universities can gather real-time consumer input on virtually any topic to guide their decisions on pricing, product/academic launches, and more.

Client spotlight: Uncovering what’s on students’ minds

To see social listening for higher ed in action, let’s take a look at 4 key insights a Synthesio client recently discovered in their dashboard. 

  1. Using machine learning, a topic modeling study scanned and categorized all university-related conversations to see what students were really talking about. “Challenge with virtual learning” emerged as a cluster, and further analysis of social posts showed that students were most frustrated with the negative impact of technology and internet access-related issues on their quality of education. This finding cued the school to explore better classroom tech alternatives and improve their on-campus WiFi.

  2. Another cluster, “Bus advice for new students”, revealed that students were looking for more guidance about the bus system used to travel between campuses – and that prospective students perceived the school’s transportation as “frustrating” and “complicated.” This presented an opportunity for the university to create more materials and resources to help students better navigate the busses.
  3. Topic Modeling also spotted multiple conversations related to racism on campus. The client decided to track this topic over time to monitor overall conversation volume and sentiment, and gather real-time, unfiltered feedback from students. In one case, their monitoring revealed a spike in activity related to a racist rant from a professor and alerted the university to take action. 
  4. Lastly, the client uses their Synthesio dashboard to track the top expressions that come up in university-related conversations. When “mental health” appeared, they dug into the data to find numerous posts looking for on-campus resources and student support communities – allowing the university to identify an unmet and critical student need in real-time. 

As competition for prospective students heightens in 2022 and beyond, it’s more important than ever that universities keep a finger on the pulse of how students, alumni, faculty and staff, external stakeholders, and international audiences perceive their brand.

To learn more about making social listening your competitive advantage, set up a demo with one of our friendly sales engineers here.