#BeyondMarketing: College Student Development on Social Media

Liam Rice

With colleges and universities across the country transitioning to online-only courses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, student life staff are left with nearly vacant campuses and a sudden demand to engage student populations in new, digitally-focused ways. In a recent article published by NASPA Knowledge Communities, Liam Rice, the Assistant Director of Student Conduct/Resident Director, offered timely thoughts on the importance of leveraging social media within student affairs as a means of shifting toward online student development practices.

Imagine these images: a sunrise over the college administration building, students studying diligently in the library during finals season, graduates tossing their caps into the cloudless sky. Images of college culture permeate social media, as students, staff, and faculty share their experiences and connect to others in their communities. As the Technology Knowledge Community detailed in the 2017 NASPA Annual Knowledge Community Conference Publication, technology is “a resource to be leveraged in all areas of student services and programs” (Cabellon, Dare, Miller, & Payne-Kirchmeier, 2017). A tool deeply based in technology, social media is a vital aspect of the holistic education of students. To truly educate students in all aspects of their growth, higher education professionals must move beyond marketing online and into intentional student development structures.


Social media seems omnipresent. Whether the office of student activities advertising an event on Instagram or a student Snapchatting friends during a lecture, a vast majority of 18- to 29-year-old students are utilizing social media (Perrin & Anderson, 2019). Every college department that seeks to connect with its students has a Twitter account and a hashtag, attempting to keep up with the deluge of roughly 350,000 new tweets a minute (Internet Live Statistics, 2019). Social media, by its design, moves rapidly, with new meme formats and inside trends every 24 hours.

If social media transforms and updates each day, then higher education stands in opposition as a largely lethargic monolith, with its structures and traditions. Social media waits for no annual college review, no board of trustees quarterly meeting; in the time roughly needed to read this article, Twitter has shifted through four new meme formats, Instagram has experienced 12 new brands of fit-teas, and Facebook has been stormed by 100 new clickbait “news” articles.

Overall, higher education has slowly adopted the use of social media: Departments seem to have just mastered Facebook pages—from which students emigrated several years ago. Even still, these online operations are often ancillary to core job descriptions, simply tacked on as an “other duties as assigned” endnote.

Colleges that have made it a focus to keep pace with online platform changes have narrowed in on seemingly a win–win situation for their departments: marketing. Showcase the college to students online to convince them to enter the admissions website and you’ve had a successful online post. The thought is: A resident director sharing out their staff’s weekly programming on the department Twitter page surely reaches students through a medium different than e-mails and door flyers.

Understandably, an Instagram feed of beautifully curated panoramas of smiling students on the campus quad and dynamic portraits of scholars presenting research is an easy sell to institutional administrators already stretched for time. Through a noble lens, the core mission of an institution of higher education is to educate; student affairs professions want to support students through their challenges and successes as they grow into ethically minded, adept community members.

To further higher education’s mission, student affairs professionals must shift the understanding of social media past marketing and toward online student development practices.


Social media is “forms of electronic communication through which users create online communities” (Merriam-Webster, 2019); in a way, the complex networks formed online by students can be thought of as a digital student union, where peers communicate with each other and the surrounding world to share ideas, reflect on concepts, and build connections. This concept of “networked publics” from danah boyd (2014), of imagined communities shaped by people, technology and actions, is integral in considering the different avenues for student learning.

Student affairs professionals encourage students to get involved on their campuses, to find their communities, and to explore who they are and could be. Users on social media sites engage in these same identity-exploration practices (Miller, 2017) and then present a digital image of themselves online, one that is constantly reflected upon by self and others through retweets and likes (Orsatti & Reimer, 2015).

Student affairs professionals consider interactions outside of the classroom vital to learning; entire functional areas have developed around working in physical residence halls and student unions. Where students gather and interact, there is an opportunity for learning. With their community at their fingertips online, students find that the transaction cost of interaction is lower than moving to physical spaces (boyd, 2014), so they take advantage of these opportunities to view what their classmates are posting and engage with those ideas.

As with residential education programs and student organization–advisor meetings, the profession can help shape how students learn through interactions on social media sites. To merely market to students with picturesque campus views is a disservice to the educational possibilities students face and the impact possible for student affairs professionals online.

These opportunities for engaging students in an educational experience on social media come with limitations—no different than a physical classroom or residence hall. Too often, professionals fear interacting with students online for what they may see on student accounts. This “context collapse” (Marwick & boyd, 2011) can create awkward challenges for professionals and students alike, as social media collapses audiences into one domain.

People act differently with different groups; your social performance becomes jilted when your normally separate audiences collapse into one, like running into your great-aunt at the bar during a night-out with college friends. This concept manifests online for students posting for their friends while also being viewed by staff and faculty.

For professionals online, a student’s tweet for their friends may confuse or frustrate—or violate the student code of conduct. How do educators mitigate this audience combination and provide students the space to explore their identity expression? Best practices on “social media inattentiveness” for college administrators must be developed if educators are to balance various professional and personal contexts in the online arena. Many professionals have a personal social media account and a “work” account. Are separate accounts for personal and professional use enough for professionals to separate work from life, or do they mislay a false authenticity that limits our true connectivity to students?

Platform engagement also changes; in the past few years, 18- to 29-year-olds have moved away from Twitter, once a kingmaker in the college content world, and instead opt for Instagram and Snapchat use. The rise of “finstas,” or fake Instagram accounts meant to supplement public-facing main accounts for a select group of friends, showcases how student practices on social media sites can change to limit interaction with others. TikTok has experienced a meteoric rise into the popular zeitgeist, but for how long? If professions are going to commit to engaging with students online intentionally, to put in the work to craft learning outcomes and engagement opportunities, how do we grapple with the semi-constant shift of college-age users to a new site every year?


If student affairs is “everything outside the classroom,” as it is so often called, then it is the duty of the profession to push forward an educational identity for social media. It must make room for students to interact and fail, to conflict and connect. We must rework our understanding of the educational power of community online to continue our mission to develop students holistically.

As Generation Z continues to move into the halls of our campuses with their meme accounts and sardonic humor—remember, this is the cohort who made a picture of an egg the most liked post on Instagram for no reason more than it disrupted expectations of the site—it is vital that educational plans include the networked-publics students discover and create themselves through.

Liam Rice
Liam Rice

Liam Rice is Assistant Director of Student Conduct/Resident Director for Loretto Hall at Emmanuel College. He received a BA in Literary and Cultural Studies and a BS in Applied Economics from Bryant University and an MS in College Student Development and Counseling from Northeastern University. His research has primarily focused on the intersection of technology and student development, specifically ways in which college students develop their self- and community-identity through online interactions. He is the Editor of the Journal of Technology and Higher Education.