Utilizing social media to strengthen college aspirations

Funded by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Nicole Ellison’s research on the effect of social media interactions and high school students’ preparedness for college led to the development of the College Connect app, which will seek to give peer group support via Facebook friends to students aspiring to attend colleges.

Start date: 1/1/2013
End date: 8/31/2014

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For low-income and first-generation college students, it can be difficult to find information and other resources about their options for higher education. An initial grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation allowed Ellison and her team of researchers to survey 500 high school students in lower-income Muskegon County, Michigan.

The research utilized statistical models to examine how various factors correlated with the students’ confidence in their ability to apply to college and their expectations of success there. The factors they examined included demographics, family history of college attendance, parents’ community involvement, and both informational and emotional support by parents, friends and Facebook connections. Ellison found that first-generation students with Facebook friends who had gone to college were more confident in their ability to succeed in school, compared with their peers who had no Facebook friends they could talk about college with.

With the ensuing grant, Ellison is developing her College Connect application to help these students find Facebook friends of whom they could ask questions about college experiences or particular schools. Where some students may not have close friends or immediate family members with knowledge about obtaining a college degree, Ellison’s College Connect app will help identify people within a user’s Facebook network who are likely to be sources of college-related information, such as those who list an alma mater on their profile or “like” a university’s Facebook page. The app will display a visual network of Facebook friends with various types of college affiliations, creating a pathway to identify useful connections and information resources.

This will be the first Facebook visualization to address college access issues and expands a social network program first developed at Oxford. Ellison and her colleagues, Christine Greenhow, assistant professor at Michigan State University, and Bernard Hogan, research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, will partner with national college-access organizations like College Possible and with school districts that serve high percentages of low-income, underrepresented students. 


Social media and college aspirations: A social capital perspective, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: $134,135 (1/1/2013-8/31/2014)


The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is guided by the belief that every life has equal value, and aspires to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. The foundation is dedicated to discovering and disseminating innovative approaches to addressing extreme poverty and poor health in developing countries and improving the U.S. education system.

College Connect: College Knowledge Challenge Grant, Funded by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: $20,663 (1/23/2013-1/31/2014)  


The College Knowledge Challenge is a competitive grant initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to award $2.5 million for the development of Facebook applications that make the college-going process more transparent, collaborative, and easy to navigate for low-income and first-generation students.

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