MERCED -- The days of prospective students only talking to university officials through imposing office visits or letters in the mail are long gone.
Today, colleges can chat, tweet and tumble with students long before they step on campus. At the University of California at Merced, social media plays a big role in the college's outreach to new and current students.
Lisa Perry, director of the Students First Center at UC Merced, said the university is on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest and uses online chat to interact with prospective and current students.
The Students First Center serves as a one-stop shop for questions about admission, financial aid, registration and billing. In addition to having a brick-and-mortar office and manning its phone lines, the enrollment services staff at the center reaches out to students across social media to get its message out.
"It really started as a way to push out information and help students meet dates and deadlines on campus," Perry said. "Social media seems to be where students are. They are on their smart phones, online, on social media. So that's where we go to reach them."
The student staff at the center runs the college's Tumblr site, and helps manage its Twitter, Pinterest and Facebook pages. One of those students, junior Breann Nix, said social media has become the preferred method of communication for many.
"We are always on it, so it's just more convenient to use it," Nix said. "Especially while on the go, because I have it on my phone and that's with me all the time."
Students also have begun taking advantage of the university's online chat service, which is staffed during business hours. The one-on-one system allows anyone -- current students, prospective students, parents, community members -- to ask questions and get real-time responses from a representative.
The service has been available for about a year and Perry said the center plans to begin offering extended hours on days of important application, registration and financial aid deadlines. Chat traffic has been light, but Perry said the center wants to raise awareness about the service across the campus.
California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock does not offer online chat services to current or prospective students. But Suzanne Espinoza, vice president for enrollment and student affairs, said the college is looking into buying software for an automated "virtual adviser" that could answer students questions online 24 hours a day.
"They won't have to call someone, they won't have to do it during work hours," she said. "We want them to be able to use it anytime, anywhere."
Espinoza said the university hopes to have the automated chat service, as well as a customer relations management tool to help interested students, rolled out by next fall. The CRM would be a portal that allows students to register and create a profile, so the university could push targeted information to them related to their interests.
CSU, Stanislaus, does have a Facebook page, but it does not use Twitter, Tumblr or other social media sites to connect with prospective students. But Espinoza said they are considering creating accounts across social media platforms.
"We want to use these new online tools to allow students to make it to the next step of actually visiting the campus," she said.
At universities already logged on to social media, such as UC Merced, students said the best way to get them involved is to keep the content current and interesting.
"I feel like (UC Merced) is way more interactive than other places because ours is more student-run," Nix said. "Friends I have at other schools say they're all run by an office and don't post as much."
Range of interests
On the school's Pinterest page, there are boards for everything from the fun to the informational. They range from standard campus pictures of events and sports teams and do-it-yourself dorm room projects to cheap meal ideas.
"We've incorporated fun things because that keeps them watching and interested and then we sneak in all the important stuff," Perry said. "That way they pay attention to it."
Perry said the Facebook and Twitter accounts seem to be garnering the most interest. The school plans to launch an Instagram account in the coming year.
"All campuses are struggling with students missing deadlines and saying they didn't know about something or couldn't find other things," she said. "There is some great information out there and our students are doing great work. I'm really hoping social media will connect all of it to everyone who is on campus."
For more on UC Merced's Students First Center and its social media outreach, go to http://studentsfirst.ucmerced. edu.
Modesto Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2284. Follow her on www.twitter.com/turlocknow.