In the never-ending drive to attract new students to their institutions, some college and university officials now look to student blogs as a fresh addition to the recruiter’s toolbox.

A recent blog entry from Manan, a 20-year-old student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., details everything from a project for his technical writing class that he finds interesting . . .

“We have to design a pamphlet or an instruction manual on ‘How to wash dishes?’ It is … meant for aliens who have just landed and have very little or no knowledge of what things is like on Earth.”

… to his assessment of the campus social scene …

“Before I came here … everyone was complaining that the girl-to-boy ratio is very thin (1:8), but now that I am here … I don’t think it is that bad. There are some decent-looking girls on campus.”

Manan, an aerospace engineering major, was chosen by Embry-Riddle to document his first year of classes in a blog made available to the general public through the university’s web site. As part of the school’s recruiting plan, he and seven other students were asked to post periodic journal entries representing student life.

Manan and many others like him are part of a rapidly growing trend in higher education. Recruiters, alumni associations, and other university departments are finding that student blogs offer a glimpse at college life largely unavailable through the down-to-business language typically employed by campus web sites to inform students and parents about classes offered in the fall semester–or the date by which textbooks must be returned to receive a full refund.

Given all the administrative functions a university’s web site must fulfill, school marketers and other campus officials are realizing that prospective students have few ways to learn what it feels like to be a student at the institution. And that’s where blogs can help, they say.

Kari Chisholm, a former recruiting consultant for Lewis and Clark College who is now president of a company that designs internet strategies for politicians, says universities are making use of blogs for a number of different purposes.

“The Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania is using its blog to communicate in a very in-depth way about procedural things: Round Two interviews, a snowstorm in Philadelphia,” Chisholm said. “Often, these questions come up at different points in the calendar year, so providing the information in [a blog format] dramatically cuts down the number of phone calls [Wharton receives].”

According to Chisholm, the editorial range of these online endeavors runs the gamut from banal administrative content such as Wharton’s blog, to Lewis and Clark’s student blogs, which Chisholm said were not even edited for typos by his staff during his time at the school.

Chisholm said student blogs can function as valuable recruiting tools. But he also offered several caveats.

“We didn’t just pick seven random students and hand them the keys to the kingdom. They had to be, first of all, good writers,” Chisholm said. Writing samples were submitted to Lewis and Clark along with the applications to aid staffers in their decision-making process.

“Second, they had to be good kids,” he said. “They were students referred to us by faculty [and other trusted university officials]. We picked the good ones, had the dean of students approve them, et cetera.”

After the students were chosen, Chisholm said, his staff “put the fear of God into them.”

“We reminded them that everyone they know–faculty, boyfriend or girlfriend, your mother, your RA, the rest of your family, too–is going to read it. Then we let them know that we’re never going to take [the blogs] down,” he said. “If you’re doing tequila night, getting blitzed, we don’t want to hear about it. And you don’t [want to write about it,] either, because one day, when you’re applying for a job, your boss is going to read about it.”

Chisholm said that, in his three years overseeing the blogs at Lewis and Clark, he experienced no problems with content.

He added that the sense immediacy and authenticity that such a hands-off editorial practice brings to recruiters can be valuable.

Michael Stoner, whose consulting company, mStoner, develops web strategies for educational institutions and nonprofit organizations, said this type of editorial approach to dealing with student bloggers is good for several reasons.

“I do think that [making students aware of the permanence of their blogs on the university web site] is not only a responsible thing to do in terms of [preserving the institution’s reputation], but I think it’s responsible to help teach these kids about the consequences of communicating in this format,” Stoner said.

“I know that there are people who contributed to newsgroups in the early nineties, who never imagining that someone would Google them in 2005,” he said. “I think it’s only responsible when dealing with a young person who is somewhat inexperienced in communicating through this medium to help [her or him] understand what some of the consequences are of communicating in a forum like this. In this case, it’s also serving an institutional interest.”

Wichita State University in Kansas has started its own student blog program this year, aimed at giving alumni a way to connect to the 21st-century students at WSU.

WSU modeled its program on one run for several years by the University of Missouri’s alumni association. That UM model follows current students and has expanded to include blogs from recent graduates hunting for jobs as well as from students studying abroad.

WSU officials have specifically told their first three freshman bloggers that inappropriate materials will be edited out of their entries.

Connie Kachel White, director of communications for the alumni association at WSU, spoke about the institution’s editorial policy.

“In my position here, I actually wear two different professional hats. One involves straight journalism and communications. I’m a proponent of the immediacy of the blog,” White said, referring to the reader’s sense that the in-the-moment thoughts of the blogger are making it to their computer screen unedited. “I like that from [the journalist] side of my job.”

She added: “The other side of my job has to do with university advancement. There’s a strong promotional element to [the student blogs].” She said the university’s interests require that officials keep some editorial handle on what’s being posted. “We’re trying to keep some of that immediacy while trying to maintain a safety net,” she explained.

Given these concerns, White said her staff hasn’t had to exercise any control over the content so far, except for possibly correcting some punctuation.

Stoner said the anecdotal evidence he’s gathered suggests that recruiters, students, and parents have had many positive experiences with student blogs, and he’s heard of no negative experiences.

“Of course, I’m not a school president or chancellor who’s really concerned about legislative appropriations or … [doesn’t] need the kind of problems that could arise from an inappropriate blog post,” he said.

“But from my standpoint, it’s pretty much a no-brainer that if you’re appealing to teens, you’ve got to reach them at their level,” Stoner said. “We recommend [student blogs] to all our clients.”

Links:

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
http://www.erau.edu/db/

Embry-Riddle student blogs
http://www.erau.edu/db/journals/

Lewis and Clark College
http://www.lclark.edu

Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania
http://www.wharton.upenn.edu/

mStoner
http://www.mStoner.com

Wichita State University
http://www.wichita.edu