Since the days of Facebook’s Honesty Box, social-media websites have been the safe havens where teenagers go to gripe and gossip away from all the nosy adults in their lives. But times are changing: kids are spending more time carefully pruning their Facebook profiles in preparation for the college-admissions game, and they’re adopting a wider variety of social-media platforms to serve more specific functions. So maybe it’s not so far-fetched that LinkedIn, the stodgy social network for professionals, is suddenly making a very deliberate play to woo teenagers.
On Monday the social-networking site announced that it is lowering its minimum registration age from 18 to 14 in the U.S. and several other countries, opening the door for high schoolers to add LinkedIn to their already robust social-media diet of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.
The company also rolled out a new feature called University Pages, a college-specific take on the company pages that already exist on the site. Colleges can present splashy landing pages that feature some of the info you’d expect to find on a school’s official website, including notable alumni and financial-aid information. The LinkedIn pages stand out from traditional college marketing by making use of LinkedIn’s vast trove of data on its 238 million members.
On the New York University page, for instance, a prospective student can quickly see the cities, industries and companies where NYU grads tend to find success. It’s also easy to quickly see how a school’s alumni network overlaps with your personal friend network, opening opportunities for an online introduction to a friend of a friend. It’s a depth of information about the outcomes of an NYU education that no number of surveys by the college’s alumni office could match.
The company’s long-term aim with these moves is to upend the college-selection process in the same way it has changed the way people are recruited for new jobs. Deep Nishar, senior vice president for products and user engagement at LinkedIn, says his own experience with a teenage daughter currently weighing college choices showed him the need for a more data-driven way to evaluate schools. He says the current method of combing through thousands of brochures that happen to come through the mail doesn’t do enough to help students find colleges that align with their interests. “It’s very untargeted,” he says. “We want to move away from the serendipity of these chance encounters into the science of appropriate life decisions based on the data that you have.”
For colleges, University Pages offer ways to more carefully target both prospective students and alumni. Messages can be sent to followers of a page based on location, industry or major. “In its logical conclusion, colleges can move away from sending glossy brochures and really focus on students that are the best fit for the programs that they have to offer,” Nishar says.
But it’s unclear whether high schoolers really want to adopt another social network, especially one that’s not as immediately captivating as Facebook or Twitter. LinkedIn says students in college or recently out of school are now the fastest-growing set of users, numbering about 30 million. The company is betting that the competitiveness of college admissions will entice an even younger group to build an online résumé too. “They’ll be motivated to do that the same way millions of kids take the SAT every year and they’re motivated to write their college applications,” Nishar says.
College-admissions experts also see a big upside in making LinkedIn a bigger part of the way colleges and prospective students interact. “We know that college-admissions folks are using social media to get to know students more,” says Dean Tsouvalas, editor in chief of StudentAdvisor.com. “Very often we’re limited to  characters, if you think about a Twitter post. This gives you a way to invite somebody from the school to look at your digital brand.”
Of course, for LinkedIn, there’s a greater benefit than just helping teens find the college of their dreams. More so than the other social networks, LinkedIn has figured out how to monetize user data in a big way. Employers pay LinkedIn huge amounts — as much as $8,000 for a single log-in — in order to scour the entire database of members’ résumés for potential hires. The company’s suite of recruiting tools, dubbed Talent Solutions, has become LinkedIn’s biggest moneymaker by far, generating more than $200 million of its total $360 million in revenue in the last quarter alone.
Looping high schoolers into LinkedIn early grows the user base of future employees that businesses can analyze, driving up the value of the company’s recruitment tools. Might LinkedIn one day offer a similar paid service specifically for colleges, letting them scour LinkedIn’s vast collection of résumés for the best and brightest students? A company spokeswoman wouldn’t rule it out.
For now the goal will simply be to get high school kids to sign up. The floodgates open on Sept. 12, and the company expects to have thousands more colleges with University Pages by then. Teens are a fickle bunch, but a million panicked seniors looking for a way to boost their college-admissions prospects might be open to adding one more social network. Says Tsouvalas, “This is a great way to show off the positive of what you have done or are doing, that I don’t think is often talked about when it comes to social media.”