Can Social Media Play A Role in Improving Retention in Higher Education? Research Says it Can.

by Kelly Walsh on October 28, 2012

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Studies have concluded that social engagement can benefit retention efforts, and schools and teachers are successfully pursuing this tactic with the help of social media applications.

Earlier this year, a student working on her Doctorate in Education reached out to ask for insights into the question of how social media influences retention, which she was pursuing for her thesis. This is a great question, and I immediately started looking for research on this topic on the Web. I came across some interesting publications, and bookmarked them for follow up. This weekend I spent quite a few hours reviewing and building upon this collection of studies and articles and brought many of them together in this post. If you know of other examples of research that supports this assertion, or efforts under way to use social media to enhance retention, I hope you’ll comment and tell other readers about them.

Studies clearly indicate that social engagement enhances retention
The potential for social engagement to play a role in increasing student retention is frequently cited in many scholarly articles and books. A recent Whitepaper on “The Social Side of Student Retention” provides a variety of studies that have found “student-peer culture to be a key predictor in a range of education outcomes including persistence rates, and commitment to the institution”. This article from ACT, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help people achieve education and workplace success, encourages socially inclusive activities to aid in student retention, finding that these can, “… help build academic self-confidence and motivation.”

In his article, “Research and Practice of Student Retention: What Next?”, Vincent Tinto (who is frequently cited as a leading researcher in the field of student retention), notes that “… one fact has remained clear. Involvement, or what is increasingly being referred to as engagement, matters and it matters most during the critical first year of college.”

Here are a number of studies and publications addressing the relationship of social engagement to limiting attrition, several of which contain references to additional publications that focus on the issue:

Can social media/networking deliver the same enhancements in retention?
With all this research indicating that social engagement can play a significant role in retention, it seems pretty straightforward to conclude that the use of social media tools should also play a role in improving retention, since they provide a digital form of social engagement. Just as with the body of research supporting the potential of social involvement to limit attrition, there is a body of research making it quite clear the today’s students and faculty are using social media tools, and academia is increasingly embracing them at a growing rate. If you work in higher education, you know this because you see it every day.

The next step is to seek studies or findings that indicate that social media and social networking tools extend the social engagement findings for retention. Research uncovered a number of publications that support that assertion.

  • In 2011, Baldwin-Wallace College in conjunction with Learning Objects, Inc. won a 2011 IMS GLC Learning Impact Award based on their innovative use of a social media application at the college. According to this press release, “the results of this collaborative effort produced a 15% improvement in retention rates for College 101 students, and greater numbers of College 101 students earning a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Of students participating in the College 101 course, Baldwin-Wallace saw retention rates improve 15%, and over 100 additional students have been retained during the successful 5 year period. By encouraging students to collect thoughts, goals, questions, ideas, to-dos and outcomes related to academic and co-curricular achievements, the B-W Action Plans empower students to better manage their own learning.”
  • The study “Social Media and Retention: The Administrative Perspective at Hispanic-Serving Institutions of Higher Education” by Galindo, Meling, Mundy, & Kupczynski of Texas A&M University-Kingsville (Journal of Studies in Education, 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3), offers the following: “Social Networking Sites (SNS) used for academic purposes have shown positive results as students interact outside of the classroom and therefore these SNSs assist in the learning process and building community (Hung & Yuen, 2010). ‘Blending the real and virtual worlds,’ inside and outside of the classroom has shown to increase peer to peer and academic engagement, especially for first year students (McCarthy, 2010, p. 738).”
  • The assertion that social media can enhance retention was further borne out, albeit on a small scale, at Warwickshire College, where students were required to join a Facebook Group as part of a course in Games Development. Course leader Andrew Brazier reported, “The Facebook group has been such a success that [we have] recorded a retention rate of 100%. He says, ‘The course has run since 2005 and although retention rates are generally very good, I often lose one or two students in the first couple of weeks of term as they find out that the course wasn’t suitable for them. Since setting up the Facebook group in September 2008 (to date of publication of this case study [1/9/09]), there hasn’t been any withdrawals. In fact, the retention rate is over 100% as an extra person has joined!’” See the full case study here.
  • In the 2010 study, “The Effect of Online Social Networking on Facilitating Sense of Belonging among University Students Living Off Campus” by Dorum, Bartle, & Pennington (University of Leicester, UK), “results suggest the use of online networking can aid social integration among students who do not have the advantage of the face-to-face interaction that takes place in residential life on campus”.

What are schools doing to leverage these findings?
There can be little doubt that students are using Facebook and many other social media tools. Faculty are also adopting these tools – this 2010 Chronicle of Higher Education article noted that, “More than four out of every five professors use social media”, based on a (U.S.) national survey of nearly 1,000 faculty members. But what about adoption at a larger level as part of an overall effort to enhance retention?

The easiest places to find news of higher education institutions getting on board with embracing the use of social media as a tool in the retention effort are the web sites and press releases from vendors who produce and sell solutions built around this concept. In this October 2011 Campus Technology article, we learn of seven higher education institutions that are at some stage of implementation with a private social networking offering from Copley systems.

Similarly, applications purveyors Ingrinal and Starfish Retention Solutions gladly share news of customers adopting their solutions. Check the “Starfish in the News” page or Inigral’s Success Stories page to learn more about schools who are, or have, adopted these social media based retention solutions. Some of these case studies bring the story full circle, with anecdotal or measured evidence of the power of social media and social networking tools to engage students and improve retention.

Do you know of other studies or examples of social media being used to enhance student retention? Please comment and share your insights with other readers. Thanks!

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
5 Fun Ways to Use Facebook in Your Lesson Plans and Teaching

7 Reasons To Leverage Social Networking Tools in the Classroom

Facebook In The Classroom. Seriously.

About 

Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer and a faculty member at The College of Westchester in White Plains, NY and is the founder and author of EmergingEdTech.com. As an education technology advocate, he frequently delivers presentations on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. Walsh is also an author, and online educator, periodically running Flipped Class Workshops online. His latest eBook, the Flipped Classroom Workshop-in-a-Book was published in September, 2013 and is available here. In his spare time Walsh also writes, records, and performs original (and cover) songs (look for "K. Walsh" on iTunes or Amazon.com or check out his original song videos on here on YouTube ).

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Improving the skills of employees January 27, 2014 at 2:23 am

Social media/networking is the latest trend of today. Everyone is becoming part of it and surely this can help in improving retention in Higher education.

Mary Burns October 31, 2012 at 7:31 am

Interesting. We found the same thing 2 years ago in an online course for Indonesian educators. We added a number of Web 2.0 activities (e.g., collaborative mind mapping) as well as social media (Skype, Twitter, Ning) and saw two things happen: (1) They really gravitated out of the LMS into the social media applications, in part because communication was instantaneous (2) Their participation rates jumped. You can find more of this in:

Burns, M. & Bodrogini, P.W. (2011, March). “The wisdom of practice:” Web 2.0 as a cognitive and community-building tool in Indonesia. In Thomas, M. (Ed.) Digital Education: Opportunities for Social Collaboration, pp. 167-193. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave-MacMillan.

Mykel Nahorniak October 29, 2012 at 10:09 am

Great post!

We’ve been tracking overall engagement and retention with Localist for a couple years now, and our data aligns very closely with the studies in this article.

Overall, it’s common sense. “Social media” is just communicating with students. Social media is the next best thing to face-to-face communication if it’s done well; it can only have a positive effect on retention.

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