By Nicole B. Ellison

Nicole Ellison

Nicole Ellison is an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Information.

Collectively, social media sites host millions of conversations every day, ranging from young people in a poor Kenyan settlement networking around work opportunities to new parents sharing baby photos in San Francisco. Facebook is one of the largest social media sites — currently it has over 750 million active daily users — but there are thousands of other online spaces where individuals can connect to one another online to request help, information or social support. My research explores the potential for social network sites like Facebook to support interactions in which people are helping one another, developing relationships, and encouraging positive change. For one set of studies, I have worked with collaborators to explore whether the kinds of interactions supported by social media have the potential to help reshape college access patterns in the U.S.

As we know, higher education comes with a variety of benefits for individuals and societies. However, not everyone in the U.S. is equally likely to pursue and succeed at earning a college degree. Students who are poor, from families where neither parent graduated college, or are black, Latino or Native American are less likely to apply for, attend and successfully graduate than peers who are white, wealthier or with college-educated parents.

One of the biggest barriers for low income students historically has been access to information about college: where to apply, how financial aid really works, how to write an application essay. First-generation students do not have the same access to information about college in the home as the children of college graduates, and their social networks are less likely to include people who can help them navigate the college application process. Similarly, low-income students are less likely to encounter information about college in their everyday life because they are more likely to attend under-resourced high schools and fewer of their family members and friends attend college.

For the past three years, I have worked with a group of graduate students and faculty to collect quantitative and qualitative data exploring the ways in which social media use might support the college-going process for first generation, low-income and minority youth.

For one study, we surveyed 504 mostly white high school students in a suburban/rural part of Michigan about their use of social media and their college aspirations (Wohn et al., 2013). We discovered that students who used social media to actively get information about college were more likely to have higher levels of confidence about the college application process. Having someone in their Facebook network that they could ask about college was related to stronger expectations of being successful at college.

Interestingly, however, this relationship between Facebook use and confidence about college success was only present for first-generation students — students without a college-educated parent. In other words, for first-generation students, who presumably did not have college information resources available in their household, social media seemed to serve as a useful source of informational and social support around the college-going process.

Most recently we have conducted a series of interviews with black high school seniors and some juniors in Detroit. Our motivation was to better understand how this group of teens used social media, specifically around college-going activities. We observed a number of ways that students harnessed the power of social media to access and share information about college.

For instance, students formed direct ties with university institutional accounts on a number of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. These accounts served as information brokers, helping students figure out where to go with questions about the application process or financial aid. Because much of what happens on social media is visible, archived and persistent, these exchanges were seen by those in the students’ networks, who were able to provide additional information or to benefit indirectly from the exchanges.

For instance, one student we spoke with described how she tweeted her college acceptances, tagging these colleges’ Twitter accounts. One of the institutions tweeted back with the URL of a special website for admitted students about financial aid. Kayla’s Twitter followers, some of whom were current college students, gave her feedback on the kinds of questions she should ask about financial aid, and her high school friends later told her that they had learned useful information about the college application process from observing her online exchanges. Through exchanges like these, the student was able to develop and access social capital by allowing other users in her network to observe her interactions with various post-secondary institutions and provide her with feedback on her information-seeking process. It also allowed Kayla, who will be the first in her family to go to college, to engage in direct dialogue with representatives of an institution for the first time.

We observed other instances in which social media were used by students to explore potential future pathways. We met many students who included aspirational colleges or universities in the Network section of their Facebook profiles, created usernames like “college kid,” or described themselves in their Twitter and Instagram profiles as college bound. When we asked about these practices, they explained that it was important for people within their network to see them as someone who was going to attend college.

These students used social media to share information about themselves with the world in addition to accessing information about the college-going process. Sharing these college-going aspirations was an important way for them to access valuable support from their network and to help transition their public identity from high school student to college-goer.


Our studies have given us the opportunity to meet many different kinds of adolescents, each with their own challenges and their own strategies for meeting these challenges. Although much of the mass media coverage of social media trends encourage us to be pessimistic about some of the implications of social media use for teens, our work with young people in Detroit and elsewhere has made us optimistic about the potential for Internet technologies to be used in ways that can change lives in positive and enduring ways.

Work cited

Wohn, D. Y., Ellison, N. B., Khan, M. L., Fewins-Bliss, R., & Gray, R. (2013). “The role of social media in shaping first-generation high school students’ college aspirations: A social capital lens.” Computers and Education, 63, 424-436