How Sweet It Isn’t: College Closure Demonstrates Need for Social Strategy

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By now you’ve heard: After 114 years, Sweet Briar College in Virginia is shutting down. Many in and outside of the industry, like Dallas Mavericks owner and entrepreneur Mark Cuban, are calling this the beginning of the higher-ed bubble burst, while others think it’s not that dire. I’m not an economist and I’m not an admissions expert, but I’m going to tell you what I think anyways.

I think this unfortunate closure should serve as a wake-up call to higher ed, and more specifically, higher-ed advancement. The prevailing wisdom is, like some other schools that have shut down recently, Sweet Briar couldn’t meet the necessary enrollment to maintain operations. Why was enrollment down? I really don’t want to speculate. Compared to other small, private, liberal arts schools, their $34K tuition isn’t ridiculous. According to US News & World Report, their alumni giving rate is nearly 33%, about triple the national average. Sure, many are questioning the ROI of paying big bucks for a liberal arts degree, but there are other, more expensive schools with single-digit alumni giving rates that aren’t shutting down… not this year, anyways.

What I find so alarming about the situation is that Sweet Briar alumnae seemed completely blindsided by their alma mater’s financial issues and closure. Just a few weeks before the news broke, the college had these sunny posts on its Facebook page:

 

Then came the announcement:

 

The nature of my work in social media made me curious what else happens on their Facebook page on a daily basis. My first thought was, “I bet they’re really neglecting their social media communities.” I was wrong. The Sweet Briar Facebook page is active nearly every day; the content ranges from announcements, to student showcases, to campus photos, to alumnae spotlights. Post engagement is also quite solid.

Consider that, then look again at the engagement of the closure post: 300+ likes, 800+ comments, and 2,000+ shares.

For a school with only 700 students and 18,000 page followers (many of whom probably followed the page once the announcement was made), these are crazy big organic numbers. Yes, you would expect content of this nature to trigger a reaction—but if they could do this with a devastating announcement, there’s potential to do it with positive, inspiring content, too.

As I scrolled through the previous two months of Sweet Briar Facebook content, I didn’t see anything that would imply the college was on the brink of destruction. To me, that’s an opportunity wasted: A page that has great engagement and a loyal following never appealed to their community for help. Maybe they don’t take the virtual community seriously, and in that case, I would argue that they don’t KNOW their virtual community. Thousands of people reacted to the closure announcement, but that’s not the time to discover the reach potential of your Facebook page.

Sweet Briar alumnae have organized a campaign to raise the $250 million needed to keep the doors open.  The movement has 4,000 volunteers and counting. I’m scratching my head wondering why the administration didn’t try to use social media as a means of rallying support in the first place. Were they embarrassed to ask? Doubtful—higher ed isn’t know for being shy to beg for dollars. Was there some sinister motive to let the school fail? Boy, I hope not. My guess is that they don’t know the size of the pocketbooks in their social communities or understand the viral potential of social.

 

Have we not learned anything from the “Ice Bucket Challenge?” In dire moments, people will rally for you. You have an engaging Facebook page with an alumnae population known for giving, and you don’t even attempt an emergency giving day or crowdfunding campaign? Did Sweet Briar know how many major gift prospects were engaging with them on social? This reeks of underestimating the financial capabilities of the online community—or neglecting their potential until it was too late. The fact of the matter is, private liberal arts schools like Sweet Briar may have lived off tuition for the last 100 years, but the game and the players have changed. People aren’t answering the phone or opening mail, and for the most part, they’re not responding to traditional solicitations. Now, it would seem they’re not enrolling either.

Sweet Briar’s closing is sad. The alumnae and students are crushed and doing everything they can to reverse the administration’s decision. I know there are controversial things that happen in the board room that can lead to these meltdowns, but when I see schools struggling for dollars—while seemingly ignoring the wealth living online—I can only shake my head and wonder what will it take for schools to understand the fundraising opportunities offered by social media.

For Sweet Briar College, it’s probably too late. But the rest of us still have a chance.

Not convinced? Read more of Keith’s thoughts on why higher ed needs to invest in social media.

 

Keith Hannon is the Associate Director of Social Media at Cornell University. For more of his thoughts on social media, advancement, and Saturday Night Live, follow Keith on Tumblr and Twitter.  

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