Facebook app will help teens tap friends’ college knowledge

January 30, 2013
Portraits, 2007

Christine Greenhow

Michigan State University researcher Christine Greenhow plans to help U.S. teens get better access to college by connecting them with social resources already at their fingertips: Facebook friends.

The College Connect app will help identify people within a user’s Facebook network who are likely to be valuable sources of college-related information, such as those who list an alma mater on their profile or like a university’s Facebook page.

Greenhow, assistant professor in the MSU College of Education, will develop the app with Nicole Ellison of the University of Michigan’s School of Information and Bernie Hogan of the Oxford Internet Institute. They’ll use a $100,000 grant from the College Knowledge Challenge, a competitive grant initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and administered by College Summit, Inc.

The contest is focused on creating new Facebook apps for education that make the college-going process more transparent, collaborative and easy to navigate for all students, but especially for low-income and first-generation students. Greenhow’s team was one of 21 winners.

“Today’s teenagers are Facebooking in their free time,” Greenhow said. “Our app will leverage the power of Facebook to address a persistent educational problem, that kids from upper-income families are 10 times more likely to get a four-year college degree than kids from low-income families. This app could help all students learn about college.”

While some students may not have close friends or immediate family members with knowledge about obtaining a four-year degree, College Connect could help them find Facebook friends of whom they would be more likely to ask questions about college experiences or particular institutions. The app will display a visual network of Facebook friends with various types of college affiliations, creating a pathway for identifying useful connections and sources of information.

Free online apps exist that produce visualizations of Facebook networks, but this will be the first to address college access issues. It expands a social network program developed at Oxford.

Greenhow and colleagues will partner with national college-access organizations such as College Possible, and with school districts serving high percentages of low-income and underrepresented students. The app is expected to be launched for testing in August.