The 2018 Higher Ed Social Media Engagement Report

Data-Driven Marketing

The 2018 Higher Ed Social Media Engagement Report has arrived! For the third year in a row, we partnered with Up&Up, a Higher Education branding and marketing agency, to identify the most engaging Division 1 universities on social media.

The most up-to-date Higher Ed data is out: Get the latest version of the Higher Education Social Media Engagement Report.

This report ranks the top schools on social media overall and across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Higher Ed institutions compete in more than just college sports, and this complete ranking honors the best in social media.

Along with the social media rankings, you’ll also learn which universities stayed at the top and which are moving up in the social media world. New this year is “The Biggest Leap Award”, which is given to the university with the greatest ranking improvement.

In this article, you’ll find the overall top 10 rankings and channel-specific winners for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Plus, we’ve added bonus content including best practices and lessons from top universities and a look at consistent top performers from the last three years of this report.

See how your university stacks up in the 2018 Higher Ed Social Media Engagement Report.

Download the full report now


We gathered data from 338 Division 1 institutions and analyzed their university-level account posts from June 2017 to May 2018. We used cross-channel performance, which is determined by engagement on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

We define engagement as measurable interaction on social media posts, including likes, comments, favorites, retweets, shares, and reactions. Engagement rate is defined as the total engagement divided by audience size. For our study, we compute the average engagement rate on a per post basis for each university on a channel-by-channel basis. Rankings were then computed using a weighted score of audience, activity, and engagement (with a strong bias toward engagement).

Using this data and weighted formula, we generated an overall engagement ranking for each university. The top-ranked universities have high engagement rates with average or better audience size and posting volumes.

Understanding benchmarks for Higher Ed

Improving your social media performance is important, but how do you know if the numbers are good or bad?

This is why we benchmark. By incorporating benchmarks into your social reporting you can compare your performance to similar schools. We’re fans of directly comparing yourself to competitive schools, schools in your region, or even schools of similar size to establish context. But it’s also a good idea to benchmark yourself against the industry as a whole. Comparing your performance to the rest of your industry gives you the yardstick to measure whether it’s good or not.

Higher Ed earns high levels of engagement across social media channels, leading over other industries for the last two years and counting. With each social network relying increasingly on algorithms that favor engaging content (engagement begets engagement), colleges and universities are well-situated to remain at the top of their audience’s feed. Higher Ed marketers—and their budgets—can appreciate the opportunities to connect without paying to play.

In our 2018 Social Media Industry Benchmark Report, the performance difference for Higher Ed is eye-popping. On average, these institutions outperform the industry average on each channel we studied. The most notable difference is on Instagram, where the average engagement rate per post of 3.39% is almost double the average of 1.73%.

The chart below shows the comparisons for each of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

higher ed vs industry average for social engagement

The rankings: Overall and by channel

Our overall social media rankings for these institutions comprises their rankings on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. In the following section, we review the overall rankings, then dive into each channel.

Overall Top 10

The top performing university on social media in this year’s report is James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. Though they didn’t top the ranks for any single channel, their top 10 performance on each individual channel catapulted them to the top of our overall rankings.

The rest of the top 10 universities also had consistently high performances across each channel.

University Overall Rank Facebook Rank Twitter Rank Instagram Rank
James Madison University 1 8 2 6
Loyola University Chicago 2 15 4 7
University of Iowa 3 1 25 21
Xavier University 4 10 14 24
U.S. Military Academy 5 28 1 38
Villanova University 6 16 30 11
Colorado State University 7 2 67 45
The Citadel 8 6 27 57
Southern Utah University 9 53 5 30
Brigham Young University 10 46 7 39

Facebook Top 10

The University of Iowa topped the Facebook rankings in this year’s report. They published almost 600 Facebook posts during the period we studied, and earned over 660K reactions, comments, and shares on those posts.

Colorado State, UVA, Jackson State, and Georgia Tech were our top 5 on Facebook.

University Facebook Rank Page Likes Facebook Posts Total Number of Engagements
University of Iowa 1 150,311 581 660,440
Colorado State University 2 156,891 390 790,247
University of Virginia 3 180,856 695 688,440
Jackson State University 4 92,358 573 323,146
Georgia Institute of Technology 5 145,545 251 356,996
The Citadel 6 35,623 500 161,544
Clemson University 7 210,446 720 742,766
James Madison University 8 90,305 448 259,982
Quinnipiac University 9 43,474 445 164,628
Davidson College 10 20,562 627 101,828

Facebook standout: The University of Iowa

university of iowa, number one on facebook

Success on Facebook can feel out of reach and as the algorithms continue to shift, the median engagement rate of 0.16% can leave you feeling deflated. While Higher Ed sees a slightly higher average at 0.19%, it’s certainly not much of a comfort. Let’s look to one university who has broken from the pack to establish an average engagement rate of 0.87%, The University of Iowa. Jumping from #31 overall last year, they’ve moved 28 spots to claim #3 overall.

The University of Iowa consistently drove engagement this year on Facebook in several ways. From Hawkeye pride, to campus happenings, and of course, stunning campus photos, their social media feed is practically a best practices dream. But what stood out as a major contributor to this year’s success was The Wave.

The University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital overlooks the Kinnick Stadium field, with a space on the 12th floor that allows patients to watch all of the game day festivities. On home game days, they’re able to catch all of the action on the field, the marching band, and the crowd. At the end of the first quarter, the crowd faces the hospital and waves at the patients. This is The Wave, and it’s delighted Iowa fans.

Iowa, best new tradition

The University of Iowa captured and shared their newest tradition, The Wave. The reactions, shares, and comments flooded in — leading to a whopping 10.5% engagement rate.

Iowa rode that Wave (what? I had to.) all the way into the #1 spot in this year’s Facebook ranking. In the post shown above, we see The Wave in all its glory through video. Garnering over 13,000 engagements for an incredible engagement rate of 10.5%, this was only the beginning.

iowa simple gesture of a wave

In another top post from Iowa, they celebrated the The Disney Spirit Award that was bestowed upon The University of Iowa during the College Football Awards Show. The video from the ceremony received 38.2% engagement rate — and for a good reason. You’ll need tissues for this one (and lots of them).

What started with Hawkeye fans caught the eyes of college sports fans across the nation, culminating with The College Football Awards Show on ESPN. The University of Iowa, and the Hawkeye Nation, were honored with The Disney Spirit Award for The Wave.

The University of Iowa drove steady engagement with video, averaging an engagement rate of 1.55% throughout the year.

The University of Iowa captured the hearts of fans nationwide with videos of The Wave, and they used video consistently to drive an average engagement rate of 1.55%. With almost 2 Video posts each week, this is similar to the overall Higher Ed average. You might be wondering why posts with the type of Status Update generated their highest engagement (I certainly was). It turns out, one status update gave the school year an impressive start.

iowa thoughtful status update

A thoughtful status update with a reminder to new Iowa students led to a 3.87% engagement rate.

This status update is a wonderful example of how good content can stand on its own — no need for a flashy video, jaw-dropping photo, or celebrity endorsement. Post something that will strike a chord in your audience; they’ll engage.

Here are a few best practices from Iowa that you can try:

Compare your performance against top colleges and universities.

See live Higher Ed benchmarks

Twitter Top 10

On Twitter, The U.S. Military Academy topped the rankings at #1 this year, and the social team there is no stranger to this report. They’ve ranked in our Top 10 Overall for the last three years! You’ll note that a few other overall top performers from this year’s report appear in the top 10 for Twitter, too.

University Twitter Rank Followers Tweets Replies
U.S. Military Academy 1 81,724 585 23
University of Maryland, Baltimore County* 2 14,909 1,033 213
James Madison University* 2 52,133 432 300
Loyola University Chicago 4 35,501 499 85
Southern Utah University 5 4,439 915 250
Grambling State University 6 10,811 913 189
Brigham Young University 7 60,285 594 421
Stephen F. Austin State University 8 17,607 328 200
Troy University 9 23,662 500 4
Prairie View A&M University 10 15,917 1,230 96

Twitter standout: Brigham Young University

BYU, 7th on twitter, 10th overall

Twitter can be hard to crack for some social media managers. They personally abhor it, find the deluge of tweets overwhelming, or it may simply not resonate with them. Personal reasons aside, the numbers can have people scratching their heads. With a median engagement rate across all industries at .046% and Higher Ed just slightly better at .062%, it’s led some people to assume it’s a dying social media network.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Case in point, Brigham Young University, who last year had a Twitter ranking of #5 and this year stayed in the top 10 at #7. Their performance caught my eye, as I noticed that for the last two years they tweeted just under 600 times. But most striking to me was that their replies are almost one for one with their tweets.

It’s easy to forget that Twitter is about communicating, often one-to-one. Here, we see that Brigham Young University not only tweets relevant content but also replies to comments and mentions. As one of only 4 institutions that remained in the Twitter top 10, this strategy is certainly working for them.

byu coke reply tweet

One well done reply can do a lot of good. Like this example that drew .76% engagement rate.

Brigham Young University had a few breakout posts, like the initial tweet above that topped their year’s engagement at 6.81%. But their average engagement rate of 0.33% isn’t solely the result of breakout tweets. (Remember, that’s impressive compared to the Higher Ed average of 0.062%)

byu engagement by hour of day

Examining the hours of the day that BYU gets engagement on Twitter, late night gets lots of action. Are you surprised that those “late-night” tweets drive the most engagement? Yeah, neither am I. When your primary audience is young college-age students, evening tweets make sense. Tweets in the 10 o’clock hour drive almost double the engagement at 1.95% compared to 1.02% during the 6 o’clock hour.

Overall, Brigham Young University approaches their Twitter with a rounded mix of professionalism and levity. Their posts and replies are direct, engaging, and when appropriate, use a little humor. It’s not off the wall like Wendy’s (or my personal favorite, Mt. St. Helens), but they do give an air of nonchalance when they see fit.

Here are a few best practices from BYU that you can try:

Instagram Top 10

For Higher Ed, Instagram is the channel that really shines, with average engagement rates (on a per post basis) topping 3% on average.

In this year’s report, the University of Vermont claims the top spot, with their 7.6% engagement rate average over the 296 posts during the reporting period. Again, we see JMU and Loyola of Chicago appearing here in the top 10.

University Instagram Rank Followers Posts Avg. Engagement Rate per Post
University of Vermont 1 26,351 296 7.60%
Binghamton University 2 22,416 298 7.45%
California Polytechnic State University 3 34,696 170 8.75%
Wake Forest University 4 26,570 398 6.90%
Northern Arizona University 5 33,935 376 6.70%
James Madison University 6 33,774 259 7.30%
Loyola University Chicago 7 22,959 184 8.00%
UCSB 9 34,548 65 10.20%
Holy Cross 8 11,062 199 9.70%
U.S. Naval Academy 10 91,135 245 6.60%

Instagram standout: The University of Vermont

Instagram is where universities shine the most on social media. Unlike other industries that have a median engagement rate of 1.73%, Higher Ed outpaces with a 3.39% engagement rate. This may be why institutions like The University of Vermont have focused their social strategies on Instagram.  As many of us know, sometimes you can’t win them all – so focusing on where you can invest resources and be successful is the best route.

For The University of Vermont, which moves up from #4 in 2017, there are several Instagram strategies they’re utilizing in tandem. From stunning campus shots that include breathtaking sunsets, gothic buildings softened by a blanket of snow, and even rainbows over field hockey, The University of Vermont shows their campus in the best light. But this effort isn’t theirs alone.

vermonts use of UGC is impactful

Each photo above is user-generated content (UGC) and garnered impressive engagement.

Over 84% of Vermont’s Instagram posts are attributed to other Instagrammers, including current and former students, faculty and staff, and visitors. Each of these user-generated content (UGC) posts include a ?(camera emoji) followed by photo credit, along with the hashtag #instauvm. The hashtag alone has over 9,000 posts.

activity and engagement by time for vermont

Is there a “best time to post”? For The University of Vermont it seems that any time is the best time to post.

It’s rare to find a social profile that doesn’t have dips in their engagement related to posting times.Digging into when the University of Vermont posts, they have perfected their content to the point of practically guaranteeing high engagement. The only dips we see in the above graph are in the hours they don’t post at all.

Here are a few best practices from Vermont that you can try:

Want even more benchmarks? Check out the 2019 Social Media Industry Benchmark Report.

Download the report now

Three-Peats: Our most consistent performers

This is the third year we’ve created this report, and quite a few of the institutions in our report have appeared consistently near the top of the rankings. Though we didn’t include this particular award category in our full report, we wanted to recognize the social media teams that have performed reliably well since 2016.

These 23 Universities have been in the top 50 overall each of the last three years. Only two of them have held their honors within the top 10 overall, #1 James Madison University and #5 U.S. Military Academy. But my eyes are on #4 Xavier University and #9 Southern Utah University. These two institutions have continued to climb the rankings each year.

University 2018 Rank 2017 Rank 2016 Rank
James Madison University 1 3 7
University of Iowa 3 31 6
Xavier University 4 9 13
U.S. Military Academy 5 5 8
Villanova University 6 27 12
Colorado State University 7 22 23
Southern Utah University 9 18 21
Brigham Young University 10 8 20
Virginia Military Institute 11 11 25
Northern Arizona University 13 1 1
California Polytechnic State University 15 12 33
Oregon State University 16 24 19
Holy Cross 17 20 29
Elon University 19 21 27
William & Mary 24 28 24
U.S. Naval Academy 25 6 8
Georgia Institute of Technology 26 16 9
Campbell University 32 13 30
University of Dayton 34 4 4
Clemson University 35 17 2
Duquesne University 36 26 14
Texas A&M University 46 38 10
Quinnipiac University 50 15 28

From a learning perspective, it’s useful to ask: What do each of these three-peats have in common?

While each institution has unique reasons for their continued success, there are a few commonalities that bubble up. If you want to ensure your social media accounts consistently draw engagement keep these tactics in the forefront.

Here are some best practices from our three-peats that you can use to improve your social performance:

Where does your university rank?

If you’re curious where you ranked in the 2018 Higher Ed Report, access the full rankings on Tableau Public.

To get all of the report details, download your copy of the full 2018 Higher Ed Social Media Report.

Live social benchmarks for Higher Ed

If you’re interested in social media benchmarks throughout the school year, check out our live Higher Ed social media benchmarking landscape. Here, you’ll find activity and engagement benchmarks, top posts, and more.

Universities in our Live Benchmarks


Cassandra Schwartz

Cassandra leads our product marketing, focusing on product, brand, and communications needs. Cassandra has worked in marketing and communications for nearly a decade helping businesses like Microsoft including Xbox and The Garage, Pike13, and many others connect with their audiences. Outside of work, Cassandra keeps extraordinarily active. An avid community builder, she leads the Seattle Lean In Circle, and co-founded SheHasDrive, as well as a peer-mentoring program based in Seattle. Since moving to Seattle from Kansas, Cassandra has adopted an outdoors lifestyle that includes hiking, skiing, and kayaking. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Ready to start analyzing?

Start measuring the impact of your social media campaigns with our 14-day free trial.

Start Your Free Trial