Social Media Demographics for Higher Ed—2021

In Fundamentals of Social Media Strategy: A Guide for College Campuses, Liz Gross wrote, “The general public is not your target audience. If you aim your content and efforts at everyone, they’re perfect for no one.” Defining and targeting your audience is your first step in developing and creating content, determining your brand and messaging—pretty much everything you do.

In Chapter 2, Liz walks through the process of defining, finding, and reaching your audiences on each platform. We’re sharing an update to help you find your audience based on current social media demographics. 


Facebook remains one of the two most popular platforms, but it’s been leveling off for a few years. Pew Research Center also found that in February 2021, 69% of adults said they use Facebook. One noteworthy feature of Facebook is there’s a narrower gap between age groups than with other social platforms.

  • Ages 18 to 29: 70% (Your current and prospective students.)
  • Ages 30 to 49: 77% (Your alumni.)
  • Ages 50 to 64: 73% (Your parents and families.)
  • Daily use: 70% of adults
  • Weekly use: 17% of adults
    Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021

As we noted in our 2020 demographics post, Pew indicated Facebook is a common platform from which users choose to take a break. This still appears to hold true with Facebook releasing Quiet Mode in 2020 so users can limit their use of the app and articles recommending a social media break as a mental health benefit, especially during COVID-19.

Facebook Groups are also on the rise. Last fall, Facebook shared that 1.4 billion people use Groups on a monthly basis, prompting the addition of new features.


Facebook is still a prime channel for parent and alumni engagement. If Facebook is part of your content strategy, try using it with prospective students once they commit to your campus. You might also engage with admits and build relationships with them as they become active in your campus community. If Facebook community building is part of your strategy, consider Facebook Groups for your target audiences—prospects, current students, parents, etc.


YouTube is outpacing Facebook as the most popular platform. As Pew reports, 81% of adults use YouTube compared to the 69% who use Facebook. More than half of users visit YouTube every day and 36% say they visit multiple times a day. According to Alexa, it’s also the second most accessed website in the U.S. with visitors spending more than 18 minutes a day on the platform. It also reaches more 18- to 34-year-olds than any TV network.

  • Ages 18 to 29: 95% (Your current and prospective students.)
  • Ages 30 to 49: 91% (Your alumni.)
  • Ages 50 to 64: 83% (Your parents and families.)
  • Daily use: 54% of adults
  • Weekly use: 29% of adults
    Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021

YouTube isn’t traditionally thought of as a social media platform—for many people YouTube is synonymous with videos—but we explain how authenticity contributes to the rise of YouTube and that conversations about your campus show up under the surface (in the comments). The Chronicle explored how students use YouTube to get a realistic look at prospective colleges. Students watch your school’s branded YouTube accounts, but they don’t comment. They do, however, comment on videos from personal student accounts. 

In a recent survey of high school juniors from Niche and Tudor Strategies, the majority of students said they wanted to view or engage with college content on Instagram and YouTube. 


If your strategy includes YouTube, incorporate content from influencers or vloggers who post about your campus on their personal accounts. Then syndicate that content and share it to your branded accounts to create the authenticity students look for.


Twitter is the platform of choice for the higher ed community, but it has moderate use among a wider audience with only 23% of adults using the platform. Even with this small percentage, users send approximately 500 million Tweets a day, with 10% of users producing 92% of tweets. Hootsuite’s Digital 2020: October Update found that 28.9% of Twitter’s audience are 25- to 34-year-olds and 99% of Twitter users use at least one other social network.

  • Ages 18 to 29: 42% (Your current and prospective students)
  • Ages 30 to 49: 27% (Your alumni)
  • Ages 50 to 64: 18% (Your parents and families)
  • Daily use: 46% of adults
  • Weekly use: 27% of adults
    Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021

In the survey from Niche and Tudor Strategies, Twitter ranked higher than Facebook for student use and the percentage of time they engage with college content. 


Twitter is a platform where a smaller group of people have a lot to say—it’s important to know if your audience is among the group heavily engaged on Twitter. Make sure you’re listening on Twitter to know if there’s conversation happening about your campus. One way to find out is to use the tips from our Social Listening Cheat Sheet

Content on Twitter is fleeting, so one of the keys is knowing when to post to best reach your target audience. Because Twitter users use multiple platforms, there’s opportunity to use remarketing campaigns and re-engage website visitors who didn’t initially convert.


Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok stand out for their use among adults under 30 and wider gaps between users 18–29 and 30–64. 40% of adults say they use the app, but that jumps to 71% when looking at usage for 18- to 29-year-olds. Users spend about 30 minutes a day on the platform and 58% of people in a Facebook IQ survey said they became more interested in a brand or product after seeing it in Stories. In August 2020, Instagram introduced Reels, a way to create short-form video content similar to TikTok. 

  • Ages 18 to 29: 71% (Your current and prospective students)
  • Ages 30 to 49: 48% (Your alumni)
  • Ages 50 to 64: 29% (Your parents and families)
  • Daily use: 59% of adults
  • Weekly use: 21% of adults
    Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021

Eighty-nine percent of marketers use Instagram as the most important social channel for influencer marketing and higher ed has the highest engagement rate of any industry at 3.19 percent. Your current and prospective students are on Instagram, interacting with your campus accounts. In fact, 67 percent of high school students find photos the most interesting social content and 45 percent enjoy seeing student social media takeovers. 


With multiple popular formats, Instagram is definitely a platform where you’ll find more than one of your target audiences.  When you think about your Instagram content strategy, consider that the two formats are likely to be seen by different people—feed content is evergreen, while Stories content is fleeting. You can also get an idea of overall Instagram engagement in higher ed from Rival IQ’s industry benchmarks. Also remember that GWI found more are creating stories on Instagram than on Snapchat—another usage to inform your content strategy.

If you use influencers in your marketing strategy or are considering using them, you’ll most likely use Instagram. Instagram Reels adds to the value of sharing engaging content that resonates with your audience. 


As Steve App’s been telling us for a while now, Reddit popularity is growing. YouTube and Reddit were the only platforms with significant growth since 2019, increasing from 11% to 18% with users spending an average of 9 minutes per visit. The r/ApplyingToCollege subreddit now has 356,000 members. According to Reddit, in 2020 the subreddit increased 55% in YoY activity as more students turned to the community for support and levity. Students use the community to hear directly from higher ed admissions, but they also share more than that. Many students share fears, ask advice, or vent about their college experience.

  • Ages 18 to 29: 36% (Your current and prospective students)
  • Ages 30 to 49: 22% (Your alumni)
  • Ages 50 to 64: 10% (Your parents and families)
    Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021

According to Reddit, 51% of Gen Z survey respondents are attracted to the authentic, user-driven nature of Reddit. And 82% of Gen Zers trust Reddit when it comes to learning about new products and brands, which reinforces that people trust people like themselves


Students are talking about your campus on Reddit—they’re asking questions and answering them. Whether your campus posts on Reddit or not, it’s a platform you should be listening on to understand your students’ questions and concerns, and even gain some competitive intelligence.


Snapchat’s key demographics are similar to Instagram, with 75% of 18- to 24-year-olds active on the app. Compare this to 25% of all adults who say they use Snapchat. Also consider that the average daily active user opens the app’s camera more than 20 times a day and that 95% of Snapchat users say the app makes them feel happy. For many users, a snap replaces a text message.

Snapchat was the first social platform to introduce ephemeral content and, according to GlobalWebIndex, users still have the highest engagement with this content format. However, Instagram users recently outpaced Snapchat for users creating stories. GWI’s survey also found that the top three reasons visitors use Snapchat is to post or share videos or content, find funny or entertaining content, and message friends and family.

  • Ages 18 to 29: 65% (Your current and prospective students)
  • Ages 30 to 49: 24% (Your alumni)
  • Ages 50 to 64: 12% (Your parents and families)
  • Daily use: 59% of adults
  • Weekly use: 21% of adults
    Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021


Your current and prospective students are on Snapchat, socializing. Due to the nature of the platform, it might be best used as a recruitment and student engagement tool. It’s also another platform your campus can use for digital storytelling.


TikTok has been growing in popularity, but this was the first year Pew Research included TikTok in their social media usage survey. Of all adults, 21% are on TikTok, but that rises to 48% when looking specifically at 18- to 29-year-olds. Teens love the variety of content, and the equal chance every user has to gain views.

The platform hosts user-created short videos, with video content varying from trending dances and practical jokes to short skits and miscellaneous clips. TikTok is all about the “for you” feed—anyone can hit the page and go viral, even if they don’t have any followers. 

According to a GlobalWebIndex survey, people use TikTok to find funny and entertaining content, post or share videos or pictures, and to keep up-to-date with news—in that order. 

  • Ages 18 to 29: 48% (Your current and prospective students.)
  • Ages 30 to 49: 22% (Your alumni.)
  • Ages 50 to 64: 14% (Your parents and families.)
    Social Media Fact Sheet, Pew Research Center, April 7, 2021


If you’re going to be on TikTok, your content needs to be creative. For example, Cape Fear Community College’s TikTok account has gone viral with their videos that confront the community college stigma. It’s also a platform you can use social listening to dig into to understand if it fits your campus’s content strategy.

Another aspect of social media that became even more apparent in 2020 with COVID-19 was its impact on users’ mental health. GWI’s survey found that 19% of Gen Z say social media causes them anxiety. Some platforms and brands are encouraging healthier habits. Snapchat created a “Here for You” campaign and TikTok added screen time prompts and asked influencers to encourage visitors to stop doom scrolling and go outside. Josie Ahlquist shared lessons we learned in digital empathy which speaks to needing more understanding and awareness in our digital content strategy.

Overwhelmed yet? We get it. We know first-hand everything you can find on social platforms. The key is with so many platforms and specific audience uses, it’s more impactful to have a constant and cohesive understanding across them than to use piecemeal approaches or unreliable software. And as your campus tries to determine staffing, resources, budget, and more coming out of the pandemic, having a strategic partner gives you a leg up on informing your strategies and campus needs. We share how our clients have used strategic partnerships, or explore what we can do for you. 

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Knowing the channels your audience is on is the first step to understanding your audience. Our trends guide helps you learn from what your audience is saying so you can refine your strategy and craft messaging that resonates with them. 

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