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Choosing which college or university to attend is one of the most important decisions a young person has to make, prompting them to consult with all manner of influencers before making the plunge, including an increasing array of online resources. Social media heavyweight LinkedIn is the latest to enter the higher education rankings ring with three new tools aiming to help students find the schools that will land them the best jobs. Of course, being primarily a job networking site, LinkedIn’s top schools for its University Outcome Rankings happen to be the ones whose graduates are working most often at “desirable” companies. Regardless of whether you agree with their criteria or the general practice of creating rankings, their newest initiative is undoubtedly an impressive leveraging of Big Data, applying complex algorithms to LinkedIn’s vast database of 313 million users to derive interesting conclusions for both students and those marketing higher education.

University Outcome Rankings

LinkedIn’s University Outcome Rankings were an unexpected public relations boon for the schools who woke up to the news October 1st that they were among the lucky few listed in one of five career categories (in Canada; there are 8 in the U.S.):

  • Accounting Professionals
  • Finance Professionals
  • Investment Bankers
  • Marketers
  • Software Developers

For each of these categories, LinkedIn ranked the top 25 universities in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, although only the top three are displayed on the first page. It claims “these are the first rankings using alumni career outcomes to rank schools for specific careers” and intends to add more career paths and countries in the coming months. All schools on the list received administrator notification encouraging them to share the good news, while alumni were alerted that their school had ranked.

linkedin social media marketing

In developing these undergraduate rankings, LinkedIn analyzed millions of alumni profiles to deduce which were the most desirable jobs for each profession, figuring out which companies were the best at attracting and retaining talent, then calculating and comparing the percentage of relevant graduates who have obtained these desirable jobs. Here is their helpful diagram explaining the basic process:

linkedin student marketing

To increase relevance, they only considered grads working in that career category and who graduated within the past eight years. “What we’re doing is we’re giving them access to information that they haven’t had from other places before,” says Crystal Braswell, a company spokesperson.

Rankings: Perception Influencing Market Reality

College and university rankings are an increasingly common yet controversial method of evaluating the relative appeal of a particular institution. Some college officials have been known to ignore rankings, refuse to participate in surveys or even deliberately misrepresent institutional data presented to rankings publications, but these days most grudgingly accept the reality that students and their parents making such sizable investments are going to first seek these kinds of impartial influence.

“Reputation is almost like the currency of higher education,” explains Phil Baty, rankings editor of Times Higher Education. “It’s the way scholars decide whom to do business with, whom to collaborate with and where they’ll go for their next career move.” He adds, “reputation often comes out as the number one factor that students use to decide where they want to go to school.” Rankings tend to be popular among top performing schools, which can then attract higher quality applicants and presumably perpetuate the cycle as perception affirms or becomes market reality. The extent of subjectivity in rankings’ methodologies is highly variable, particularly because there are so many measures on which institutions can be judged.

In the case of LinkedIn, its detractors are quick to note that the new rankings may be biased by a number of factors. LinkedIn only include the outcomes of its own members within a limited number of fields, and the data collection and interpolation process lacks full transparency. If LinkedIn attracts more people who believe they have better jobs than the general population, the rankings “could be very skewed,” suggests Judith Scott-Clayton, professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Successful grads who have pursued professions not deemed “relevant” to their program would also be missed in these listings.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect is directly connecting education quality with perceived job results, without supporting context. Academics have long lamented the growing disregard for higher education’s many intangible benefits in favour of an emphasis on return on investment. As consumers are increasingly going online to research significant purchases, it’s no surprise that the number of school comparison resources has exploded in recent years. While employment outcome is indisputably an important factor in determining college quality, reducing higher education to essentially a transaction for achieving specific employment goals can be misleading at best.

Despite expressing distaste for rankings in general, some onlookers are intrigued by LinkedIn’s ambitious initiative and are curious where it could lead next. “In many ways, this might be a more valuable approach than just wages, in that it does appear to represent what individuals feel about their jobs and education,” noted Tod Massa, director of policy research at State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

University Finder and Decision Boards

LinkedIn’s other new tools aim to make the school search a more personalized experience, leveraging its existing social networking and big data-crunching capabilities. Decision Boards is a social decision making platform like a cross between Twitter and a Q&A panel, helping students find advice from their network and beyond, and even meet peers attending the same school by tagging their college name. Prospective students can use the tool to organize their higher education options, add schools they’re considering, share general questions with the community, or even share their decision boards with parents and advisors, who can then add their own notes.

university recruitment

The University Finder tool encourages students to consider their ideal destination in terms of geographic location, employment and field of study, then outputs a list of potential schools that are most likely to lead to these goals. For example, a student may decide: “I’d like to study engineering, work in Montreal at Bombardier in Project Management” and LinkedIn will automatically display popular universities for this career goal. The tool matches students with the environments where they will best thrive based on strengths and interests, according to the accumulated analytic patterns. This type of reverse search can be a handy feature for college and university websites to include as a resource for students who are interested in the institution but are uncertain of which program best suits them.

social media student recruitment

The Field of Study Explorer was actually introduced this past summer but it is a related tool, showing prospective students how many LinkedIn members studied at a particular major and university, and where they ended up working and living. A key value for such a service is enabling prospective students interested in presumably less practical fields, like studio arts or philosophy, to affirm their choices by tracing a success story – convenient evidence for convincing parents on the merits of their major.

What This Means for your School

It’s quite apparent that LinkedIn’s new tools are aimed at courting younger users to its site and interacting with them over the course of their careers. Last year, it lowered its age limit to 14 in America (and 13 elsewhere) while initiating enhanced university pages and other new features, recognizing that younger demographics are increasingly concerned about future job prospects. Its huge collection of career path data gives it a significant advantage in standing out among the growing pack of evidence-based college search sites.

concordia linkedin marketing

This all means that it is more important than ever for higher ed institutions to optimize their LinkedIn pages, presenting the most updated information possible and establishing lifelong connections with students. As social media is particularly popular among mobile users, schools must also ensure their sites are mobile-friendly. Already some schools are using LinkedIn in innovative ways – this summer, Cornell University began allowing MBA applicants to pre-fill parts of their applications with information from their LinkedIn profiles using LinkedIn’s open platform.

HubSpot suggests these ways of leveraging your University Pages:

  • Provide specific and detailed information for students who have indicated particular interests
  • Integrate this information in email exchange and other relationship building
  • Encourage students to add testimonials, acting as brand advocates
  • Reconnect with alumni for revealing career outcomes and renewed engagement
  • Create parents-only pages with targeted content

Prospective students and their parents are increasingly concerned with career outcomes, and even if LinkedIn offers only an incomplete picture, it signals a heightened general interest in leveraging analytics to deliver meaningful insights. Colleges and universities must recognize how their brand is portrayed online on third-party websites and in social media marketing, realizing that these are increasingly likely to be the first places that prospects discover and form their opinions about them.

Will LinkedIn’s new tools change your social media approach?