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Universities Build Virtual Tours With User-Generated Content

Working with ed-tech companies like Full Measure Education, universities are crowdsourcing photos and videos on social media to build virtual campus tours, supplementing information packets that cost thousands to mail.

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With colleges and universities increasingly adopting new digital platforms to meet demand for online learning and competing to attract students amid enrollment declines, admissions staff are making use of user-generated content (UGC) — photos, videos and social media posts made by individuals rather than by paid organizations — for virtual campus tours to help attract more students. According to Greg Davies, CEO and founder of the ed-tech company Full Measure Education, companies like his have been benefiting from those trends.

Citing data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that found 1.3 million fewer postsecondary students in spring 2022 compared to spring 2020, Davies said that universities and colleges are competing to meet students where they are and boost enrollment. He said his company now works with about 10 percent of U.S. higher-ed institutions, such as Vanderbilt University, Florida State University, Stanford University, Illinois College and others, to better personalize virtual campus tours and deliver content geared toward attracting new students.

“There’s been a shift in almost every other industry towards content on social media being more important to this current generation’s decision-making as it relates to major life decisions, versus glossy, well-produced content,” he said, noting Generation Z’s familiarity with platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. “A lot of the work that we do in our products allows institutions to leverage students’ stories in different ways across the student life cycle. In particular, our focus right now is on virtual visits ... Almost all [schools] understand that not everyone has the funds to visit campus, so they need to create really compelling virtual tours that highlight students on campus in a way that allows prospective students of all types to better connect with the institution and see if they fit in there or if that’s the place for them to go.”

According to a recent white paper from Full Measure, UGC helps to “humanize” institutions and build trust with prospective students, in addition to helping understaffed admissions departments save time and money on the touring process. It noted that 81 percent of students consider a campus visit to be of “considerable importance” in the college search process, with many looking to the endorsements of current students before making a final decision.

With the pandemic disrupting the hiring process for understaffed admissions departments and the wait lists for tours at many institutions numbering in the hundreds of prospective students, Davies said, universities must find ways to attract newcomers based on their interests and backgrounds. He added that a recent Student Voice survey found that 40 percent of undergraduate students planning to graduate in 2025 applied to between six and 10 institutions.

In addition, Full Measure’s white paper noted that 14 percent of undergraduate students cited racial diversity on campus as a key factor in making their enrollment decisions, and Davies said user-generated content helps reflect that. He thinks it also helps universities attract more first-generation and low-income students nervously starting college for the first time.

“Higher education is really the industry that’s probably done the least amount of work with user-generated content, even though they serve a demographic that’s the most interested in authentic content coming from content producers that they share commonalities with. We felt like it was important to raise awareness in higher ed,” he said. “With our platform, the very first thing a prospect does is say, ‘Here are my interests,’ and that generates a tour based on their interests … Things like virtual tours, if done right, allow them to see someone that looks like them, speaks like them, is from a similar community there, has similar interests to theirs and then see how they feel about the university.”

“Every school is trying to get more low-income students and more first-gen students to come to campus and be successful,” he later continued. “In a lot of cases, it’s [about] overcoming the fear that I’m going to get to that school and no one’s going to be like me.”

In a recent webinar, Davies said schools such as Kennesaw State and Illinois College reported increases in enrollment after using user-generated content to show new students around, as well as to answer questions about campus culture and operations.

“Kennesaw was specifically able to report that they had an 80 percent increase in enrollment related [to UGC content],” he said. “And George Washington University also did a phenomenal job of putting out user-generated, student-generated content on their tour.”

Kennesaw State’s Director of Admissions Jordan Stevenson said officials looked to user-generated content to reach more students, supplementing resources such as the info packets that cost the university thousands to mail out every semester.

“We were looking for ways to have a mobile-first approach to telling students they were admitted to the university and what they needed to do post-acceptance,” Stevenson said in the webinar, adding that the content helps to answer frequently asked questions from new students.
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.