University study shows social media helps first generation college students succeed

By Stephanie Dilworth, Daily Staff Reporter
Published June 12, 2013

Studies conducted by researchers at the University and Michigan State University have revealed that first-generation students, who traditionally are less likely to attend college because they lack important application information and financial or emotional support, now have new opportunities to make their college dreams a reality.

The study explores how social media such as Facebook may help first-generation college students gain crucial information from their extended social network.

It also explores ways in which information could make students feel more prepared for the college application process and more confident they will succeed.

This assurance comes from students contacting other students, who can then share knowledge on the application process and various aspects of college life.

Nicole Ellison, associate professor at the School of Information, said the project was funded by a grant provided by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was interested in college access issues. The Foundation wanted to research groups such as first-generation and minority students as well as students of low-income backgrounds who faced disadvantages in the college process, specifically to determine whether or not these students were less likely to apply to and graduate from college.

The study used survey data collected from over 500 high school students of lower socioeconomic status in Muskegon County, Michigan. The data were then used to determine the impact of multiple forms of social capital associated with parents, close friends and Facebook friends on a student’s knowledge of the college application process, and expectations of whether or not the student would prosper in college.

In the pool of students, 12 percent of those who used social media to find answers to their questions about the college application process displayed a better understanding of how to apply to colleges, according to a University press release.

Ellison said the study reveals a major benefit to first-generation college students that they should utilize.

“These findings point to the fact that social media can be an effective means of getting information and emotional support,” Ellison said. “I would encourage first-generation students to think about people in their extended social network and how they can use those people for support as they move through their education here.”

Researchers found that students who “strongly agreed” that they used social media to find information on the application process felt 1.8 times more confident of their understanding of how to apply to colleges than students who did not use social media to obtain information.

The students who utilized social media sites to gain valuable information about college were also 2.3 times more confident in their ability to succeed in school than students without online peers to ask college related questions to.

As a result of the study, educators are encouraged to discuss ways to help students to better use social media.

This summer, Ellison and colleagues from the University of Oxford and MSU are developing a Facebook app that would provide a visualization of anyone’s network that will allow students to highlight people that are associated with a university.

Ellison said the app will make social media an even more valuable resource to students.

“We are trying to make it easier for students to see who is in their network and has gone to college and who might be a good resource to ask questions about college,” Ellison said.

LSA junior Gina Ambrogio is a first-generation student who said her primary sources of information when applying to college were her school counselor and Facebook friends who attended the University.

“My parents didn’t know much about the process so when I was applying I asked a lot of questions to my counselor,” Ambrogio said. “I did use Facebook to connect to kids in my high school who I knew also went to U of M.”

“I felt like I knew more going in because I knew what the students who went to U of M actually had to say about it,” Ambrogio added.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article stated that Bill and Melinda Gates personally funded the study. The grant for the study came from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation