“Lack of engagement is one of the biggest problems we have today in getting more students through the college and university system,” says Vineet Madan, vice president of strategy and business development for McGraw-Hill. “If we don’t tackle the engagement problem collectively, we’re not going to get more people through the system. … And one of the great promises of social media in higher education … is about promoting engagement.”

So true.  As reported in the online publication eCampus News, Madan was part of a panel discussion at Social Media Week in New York.  Education technology experts on the panel said keeping college students and their professors connected through social media outlets could be key in boosting graduation rates.  The future of campus technology, Madan said, “is not going to be sitting there and watching a webcast of a professor lecturing on a screen—that’s not engaging.”

Social Media Week ran through the first week of February in six cities worldwide—New York City, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Sao Paulo, and Toronto—and authorities from the business world, academia, and other fields discussed how social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are shaping global culture.

Kathleen King is a professor of adult education at Fordham University. She said that professors are unlikely to accept and use social media tools in their courses widely until faculty members are rewarded for innovative accomplishments—and not just traditional research and pursuing tenure.

“There is no incentive in most universities for engaging with social media or even for faculty to engage their students,” said King, president of Transformation Education LLC, a group of educational advisors based in New Jersey. “We have to start with the professor first, and we have to look to the institution.”

The tools are there.  There are many Facebook applications that can help faculty engage with students, and faculty engage with one another.

And the need is there.  Universities are facing a high dropout rate.  A dismal 58 percent of entering freshmen in the U.S. actually graduate from the same college within six years. More and more students are questioning the “bang for the buck” as college tuition has risen in cost more than any other good or service since 1990, leaving students with $714 billion in outstanding student-loan debt.

At its top levels, the American universities are among the best in the world. Yet in terms of its core mission —producing educated college graduates — much of the system is simply failing.

According the New York Times, only 33 percent of the freshmen who enter the University of Massachusetts, Boston, graduate within six years. Less than 41 percent graduate from the University of Montana, and 44 percent from the University of New Mexico. The economist Mark Schneider refers to colleges with such dropout rates as “failure factories,” and they are the norm.

We need to do much better. Half a billion people now participate in social media sites, reflecting the remarkably compelling nature of online relationships.  Their use in making higher education more engaging is urgent and obvious.

Don Tapscott