The Top 5 D2 Colleges on Instagram and How They Stand Out

Marketing Tools & Tips Social Media Best Practices

With the school year in full swing, colleges and universities across the nation are already looking toward next year. With a sea of choices out there for students to choose from, how can you make your school stand out? Like any other industry, higher education has embraced social media as a way to attract attention. And online attention for a college can mean new students hoping to make their mark there.

But not all social media use is created equal. According to our findings, higher education institutes are more likely to post on Facebook and Twitter over Instagram, but their engagement rate on Instagram is over 20x higher than Facebook’s engagement rate and over 40x higher than Twitter’s engagement rate. Instagram appears to be the place to be for higher education, but how can colleges best leverage this platform to their advantage?

To study NCAA Division II colleges’ performances on social media, we’ve created a D2 colleges industry report ranking 305 D2 colleges using social media within the 2021-2022 school year. We scored these colleges’ overall performance on their social media accounts, but we also ranked who did best on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and TikTok.

Those who did best on Instagram utilized several similar strategies, but we can gather many unique takeaways from how these colleges used the social media site. While high school may be over for the students at these schools, we’ve given these colleges their own superlatives for how they performed on Instagram. But rather than Best Dressed, we’re looking at social media superlatives. Let’s take a look at who is Best at Instagram.

The Top D2 Colleges on Instagram

Cedarville University

Best at: Branded Hashtag Usage

Cedarville University has definitely embraced the power of the hashtag on Instagram. The school’s average engagement rate for posts with hashtags was 30%, which is about 5x higher than Cedarville’s average Instagram engagement rate of 5.9%. But Cedarville took things a step further by utilizing several different branded hashtags. Among Cedarville’s top-performing hashtags are many branded hashtags that cover the unique aspects of the school’s campus life, including #GettingStartedatCU, #CUWholeHearted, and #CUinChapel.

Seven of Cedarville’s top 25 posts contained such branded hashtags. While these hashtags helped boost Cedarville’s engagement rate, they’ve also furthered the college’s online reach as they have been reused by students, alumni, and parents of students throughout Instagram. Take, for example, the #GettingStartedatCU hashtag. Most prominently featured at the start of the school year, this hashtag is a frequent fixture on the school’s Instagram page. Many posts welcome new students to their new home, such as the one below celebrating the entrance of the class of 2025. The post below garnered an engagement rate of 17.3%, nearly 3x higher than the school’s average engagement rate.

Students holding welcome posters. Hashtag used is #GettingStartedatCU in this post from this top D2 college on instagram

Sharing posts with branded hashtags like this one introduces the hashtag to the school’s audience. By using the #GettingStartedatCU hashtag, Cedarville is creating a way for students and family members to track their beginning at the place where they’ll spend the next four years. Clicking this hashtag brings you to a page filled with an array of move-in activities, onboarding events, students making their first friends, and other positive parts of the start of the school year.

The hashtag spreads beyond just Cedarville’s Instagram page, which is one of the most significant benefits of using branded hashtags. This post, shared by a family member of Cedarville alums, celebrates how Cedarville has become a part of their family’s story. By creating these branded hashtags, Cedarville allows its community to do its marketing for them. The post shows an emotional tale of cousins spending their college years together, which may encourage others to start their own journey at Cedarville. Having others reshare its branded hashtags gives Cedarville the opportunity to reach new audiences and potential new students.

The University of Tampa

Best at: Repurposing Content

Social media managers have a tough job. Although they sometimes have a team creating content with them, it often falls to them to handle not only social media strategy but creating the content for the posts themselves. And hiring someone to be a dedicated content producer is expensive — over $70,000 expensive. But as The University of Tampa has discovered, repurposing user-generated content (UGC) can save a brand the time and money it takes to make dedicated content.

Fourteen of the University of Tampa’s top 25 posts were images reposted from other social media accounts. While repurposing UGC helped out with the brand’s bottom line, it also assisted in developing, promoting, and connecting within its community. By repurposing content from students and local photographers alike, the University of Tampa entered itself into the local conversation. Reposting photos from the school’s Delta Zeta sorority of the sisters practicing goat yoga, like the one below, earned the university an engagement rate of 11.8%, about 2.15x higher than the University of Tampa’s average engagement rate.

Reposted image from a student account with students laughing while doing goat yoga

This strategy serves multiple purposes aside from the monetary perks. It celebrates the activities of the University of Tampa’s organizations, showing support for the sorority. It also benefits Delta Zeta because it allows them to reach new audiences. Followers of the University of Tampa may have been introduced to Delta Zeta thanks to this post, which may increase the positive feelings the sisters associate with their school. But it also benefits the school by showing its followers an example of one of the fun and fulfilling organizations they could join if they attend the University of Tampa.

UGC can be specifically helpful in targeting potential students, who currently are categorized as Gen Zers. Today, 77% of consumers seek out visual content from others who have already purchased the product or, in this case, attended the school. For Gen Z alone, that number reaches 91%, indicating that Gen Z potential students would be more interested in images taken by current students rather than by someone representing the school as a dedicated content producer or social media manager.

Saint Anselm College

Best at: Accessibility

Of all of the top 10 D2 colleges on Instagram, Saint Anselm is the only one that utilized image descriptions, which are text descriptions written in the caption explaining what the photo is about. Image descriptions are becoming increasingly common on social media, and for several good reasons. One of the biggest reasons is that image descriptions help those with visual impairment gather essential information about the post.

Some people may scroll past the image description on the post below sharing the Halloween decor assistant manager Terry Newcomb put up at Saint Anselm’s coffee shop. But for those with visual impairment, which includes 8% of the U.S. population, that description allows their image-reading software to capture the complete picture. Those with visual impairment are too often left out of the conversation on Instagram. But by using image descriptions, Saint Anselm is making its content more accessible, which is encouraging for potential students with visual impairment. The post below demonstrates that Saint Anselm is engaging its audience with its content and captions. This Halloween post amassed a 14.4% engagement rate, about 2.25x higher than the school’s average engagement rate.

Terry Newcomb standing at the entrance of a decorated coffee shop on campus complete with pumpkins, spiders, and ghouls.

Image descriptions can also help on the backend. By describing the content of an image, Saint Anselm is boosting their search engine optimization, or SEO, on Instagram. SEO is essential if brands want to be found through Instagram’s search function. By using image descriptions, Saint Anselm is more likely to be discovered through Instagram searches than a college that’s not writing descriptions of its posts in their captions.

Anderson College

Best at: Giveaways

According to our 2022 Social Media Industry Benchmark Report, nearly every industry saw success with posting giveaways, and Anderson University’s success with this strategy goes to show that giveaways also work for higher education. Anderson University’s top two posts were giveaways, and they both received an engagement rate of over 22%, which is 2.75x higher than the college’s average engagement rate. These giveaways also show that you don’t need a prize that’s incredibly high-value to see success with this method. The giveaway in the university’s top post of the school year was for a new t-shirt and mug sporting the Anderson University brand, while the giveaway in the second-highest-ranked post was for a $50 gift card to the school’s bookstore.

Student wearing a t-shirt with the AU logo on it, one of the giveaway items.

These posts, however, also have distinct differences that may demonstrate why one performed better than the other. The highest-ranked post shared images of what the students who enter the contest will receive. These photos featured other students donning their Anderson University shirts and holding #TruetoAU mugs. The other post only showed an aerial photo of one of the school’s buildings. The first post is more eye-catching and does more to show off the Anderson University brand. Whether you’re doing a giveaway or just a simple post, studies show that staying true to your brand is the best way to drive up engagement.

These giveaways also show that you may get less engagement when you list many different steps to enter the contest. The highest-ranked post simply asked the university’s followers to follow their official Instagram accounts and tag someone “who is #TruetoAU,” while the other post asked followers to like the post, follow the university’s official Instagram accounts, and tag friends. For a bonus entry in the second giveaway, followers could also share the post to their account. Having so many steps creates a high barrier to entry, which may discourage audiences from engaging at all.

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Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Best at: Brand Voice

As a school that’s focused on flight, the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Instagram implements a pun-filled brand voice with a focus on aviation and astronautical engineering. Many other universities tend to focus on the quintessential college experience, like homecoming court, dorm rooms, and graduation week. But the majority of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s posts, whether they’re photos or videos, focus on the experiences one could only have on their campus. From a food-delivery robot making meal runs for students to when the Thunderbirds were in town, the school does well to highlight what makes its campus life so unique. The voice throughout the posts is also friendly, accessible, and clearly meant to sound like the voice of a student rather than an administrator, making it more relatable for potential and current students alike.

Embry-Riddle demonstrates that speaking a similar language to its Gen Z students and potential students is a helpful way of garnering engagement, but it’s important to note that it’s done in a subtle way. The social media team is careful to use contemporary slang correctly and doesn’t go overboard by stuffing captions with it. The post below celebrating the graduation of the class of 2022 is captioned, “It’s giving college graduates,” which technically isn’t a correct sentence. But it utilizes a Gen Z colloquialism and does so in an effective, non-pandering way. This post received an engagement rate of 9.10%, 1.67x higher than the school’s average engagement rate. The brand voice Embry-Riddle uses is also overwhelmingly positive and serves to cheer on current students and alumni. It’s perhaps very fitting that a school dedicated to flight has a brand voice so uplifting.

Top D2 college on Instagram, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University graduation post with 2 grads in their gowns with sunglasses and a rapper stance

Wrapping It Up

Instagram is the place to be for higher education, but all industries are finding that their engagement rates are higher on Instagram than they are on Facebook and Twitter. Colleges and universities, D2 or otherwise, could benefit from implementing some of the strategies these schools are utilizing. But these techniques are helpful even outside the world of higher education.

Looking to learn more ways to build your engagement and reach on Instagram? Check out our D2 college industry report to see how the top schools on Instagram achieved their ranking and reached new audiences.

Jackie Gualtieri

Jacqueline is a writer and editor based out of the Central Coast of California. She initially started out as an influencer marketing strategist and continues to find herself fascinated with the way social media affects us. When she's not analyzing the world of social media, she can be found writing poetry and short stories. And if she's not writing, she's probably covering her house with more crochet and embroidery.

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