By Claire Ballentine, Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou and Paulina Cachero
Thirty students at Duke University gather for one of their last classes of the school year on a Tuesday afternoon in April. But rather than preparing for final exams, they’re shooting TikTok videos.
Welcome to Gen Z college.
The new generation of social media stars is younger than ever before, and they’re turning their success into lucrative careers even before they graduate, raking in thousands of dollars a month. Universities are taking note and launching classes to help students cultivate their online brands. The goal? Offering courses that will help colleges stay relevant at a time when a popular TikTok account is more valuable to some than a degree.
Duke’s full-credit course — officially called “Building Global Audiences,” but better known as “the TikTok class” — teaches undergrads at the Durham, North Carolina, campus how to optimize their presence on social media apps. Over the semester, students in professor Aaron Dinin’s class have collectively gained 145,000 followers and garnered 80 million views for videos they produced.
Natalia Hauser, a sophomore in the class, has roughly 227,000 followers, with about 12,000 gained during the semester. Her TikTok account (@natisstyle) helps her generate anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000 a month through partnerships with brands like Barnes & Noble, Macy’s, Canon and Pepsi. Sometimes, she can make as much as a $5,000 for a single post.
Hauser, whose videos focus mostly on her beauty and fashion routine as well as her family in Miami, said the class taught her how to negotiate with brands and figure out how much she could charge for her work.
“I don’t think people understand how much money is in this industry,” Hauser said. “It involves a lot of negotiation and business.”
Social media-focused classes are not a novel concept in universities across the U.S. As platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram took a central role in influencer culture, courses in digital marketing and communications became an essential part of college education for anyone interested in following that path.
Dinin, who has a Ph.D. in English and a background as a tech entrepreneur, had been teaching social marketing for Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Institute when he realized how many students were doing some form of content creation, and he decided to build a class around it.
Along with Duke’s course, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and the University of Virginia offer similar programs. The skills to make money off an online presence are even more in demand now that the National Collegiate Athletic Association allows athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness.
It wasn’t easy for Dinin to convince the Duke administration to offer this type of class. To some at the school, social media seemed like a fleeting phenomenon for young people. But Dinin views it as a new form of communication and art.
“There’s a sense from older generations that being an influencer is this superficial Gen Z type of thing,” Dinin said. “But the reality is that these media platforms are just the way the world is. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial opportunity and a lot of reach.”
In the Duke class, students — who collectively have about 600,000 followers across platforms — compare analytics and goals for their accounts, and discuss why certain posts perform well or not. Assignments involve using a current TikTok trend as inspiration for a related video, and then sharing the final product with classmates. They can film their own videos during class hours, or spend time doing outreach to brands.
One of the most successful videos made this semester featured Hauser and her Venezuelan cousins at a family gathering. It has three million views and 649,000 likes.
Students sometimes leverage their online presence to land jobs. Junior Ben Chipman (@benchipman5), who makes videos about his style and college life, got an internship at LinkedIn in New York City this summer, in part because of his experience in building a personal brand.
“I need a social media presence to get a job in places and positions I’m interested in,” he said. “There’s an expectation I have something to show for myself.”
While doing content creation full-time can be a risky path, Athan Wright (@athanwrightt), a freshman who documents his life on a YouTube channel, plans to turn his new social media stardom into a career.
The Charlotte, North Carolina native posts videos about rites of passage like opening college acceptance letters and move-in day, along with pranks often involving students from rival University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
On a sunny spring day at Duke, when high school seniors who had recently been admitted to the university visited in droves, several recognized Wright and approached him, saying they’d watched his videos to get ready for college.
Still, not everyone is so enthralled by his newfound fame.
“My mom is very worried about me,” he said.
Whether a college degree is truly needed for a content creator is a question many would-be social media stars are wrestling with, especially considering all-time high rates for tuition. Meanwhile, income from custom posts on TikTok can range from $2,500 to $20,000, depending on the account’s followers and engagement, according to Bullish Studios, a talent agency for influencers.
Data from research firm Statista show the global influencer economy has more than doubled since 2019 and was worth a record $13.8 billion in 2021. Of course, most TikTok users make nothing at all from their posts, and those looking to partner with brands often struggle to make more than a couple hundred dollars here and there.
For some, the math is obvious. Mark Setlock (@financeunfolded) was a dual major in finance and accounting at the University of Michigan, and had plans to work as an investment banker on Wall Street.
He launched Finance Unfolded on TikTok in January 2021, and Setlock says it gained 60,000 followers within the first month. He received his first paid offer to make a 30-second video for $300 in March. By December, he was raking in $40,000 a month, and he decided to drop out of college after just three semesters to pursue influencing full-time. Now, the 19-year-old says he’s signing six-figure sponsorship deals.
“It just expanded my mind to all the possibilities and how legitimate this career can be,” Setlock said. “Not only would I make way more than I would right out of college working on Wall Street, but I feel like I’m genuinely making an impact in the world.”
Brianna Seaberg (@briseaberg) started at the University of Southern California with the intention of pursuing a job on the business side of the entertainment industry. But after joining USC Reach, a student-run club for aspiring influencers, she sees a future in creating content full-time.
In recent years, USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has pivoted its curriculum to train students how to be successful in an increasingly digital world, including as influencers. Seaberg began taking some of the classes that help students build their personal brand. One course she took on the power of persuasion helped her negotiate a $1,000 sponsorship with Papa John’s.
The college senior said she’s made more than $20,000 in about eight months, striking sponsorship deals for as much as $5,000 with major companies including H&M, CoverGirl and Amazon. She’s used the money for trips and activities but also contributed some of her income to a Roth IRA account and has invested in stocks through the popular brokerage app Robinhood.
“I started seeing a lot of people in the club making money from brand deals and doing sponsored content — that was really eye-opening to me,” she said. “Creating content for brands has not only given me financial freedom, but freedom in my life to be able to do more things.”
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