A week in Domonique Malcolm’s life as a University of Pennsylvania business major: Buy a bus ticket to a college campus, find students who would let her follow them for a day, squeeze in homework between classes and video editing, use that bus ticket, film, rinse, repeat.
Malcolm graduated from Penn in 2022, but her college experience is best captured through the lens of others: She spent four years filming candid interviews — inspired by Vogue’s 73 Question series — with students at elite universities for her 90,000-plus YouTube subscribers.
“I wanted to help people who look like me get into good schools,” said Malcolm, who is Black. “But this experience taught me that I love being behind the camera.”
Malcolm was a college influencer. At 23, she’s already aged out of the side hustle.
College influencers are young adult content creators who chronicle what it’s like to attend prestigious universities (or party schools) through first-person dorm tours, livestreams of study sessions, and TikToks about sorority rush.
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Chiefly posted on YouTube and TikTok, these videos have augmented the college tour — and are lucrative for the students making them. Brands from Victoria’s Secret and Red Bull have invested resources into college influencer programs, doling out money, swag, and internship credits in exchange for Gen-Z marketing.
“Influencing was my college job, covering odds and ends like my spring break,” said Quincy Morgan, a 2023 Penn grad from New York who fell into content creation via her mom Sonja Morgan, a Real Housewives of New York fan-favorite. “My mom works so hard, so I wanted to ask her for less [financial] support.”
But what happens when a college influencer graduates? Will they have content without the stream of parties and existential crises college affords? And for those looking to take their lives off-line, does a long digital footprint make a normal 9-to-5 impossible?
“I would never want to quit my day job,” said Morgan, who will soon start working in Paramount’s finance department. “I don’t think content creation is my passion. I think I’m passionate about the people who follow me.”
From fun to a full-time job (kind of)
Malcolm didn’t fall into content creation for the money, even though it is part of why she hit pause.
Malcolm said her mom recommended she start making YouTube videos in middle school. Malcolm posted her first viral video in 2018, when she filmed her reaction to opening her Ivy League admission letters. By the time she headed to Penn, it had amassed over 700,000 views.
Malcolm’s YouTube channel took her to over 50 campuses and allowed her to interview more than 200 students before she graduated, when she decided to dial it back in favor of producing videos for a New York consulting firm.
“I want to be a filmmaker, so I got a job where I can keep learning” without the stress of posting frequently enough to please followers and make a living, Malcolm said. “When I fell out of love with making the college stuff, my videos started to become really imperfect.”
Sky-high paychecks may not be the reality for most: A 2022 survey from affiliate marketing platform Linktree found that only 12% of content creators make more than $50,000 a year.
Hailie Dall, a 22-year-old Hatboro native who graduated from Temple in 2022, started posting video diaries on TikTok during the pandemic, aiming for accountability as she quit smoking and tried to prioritize self-care.
Dall reached more than 740,000 followers over the past three years, but said she didn’t have “enough time and mental energy” to monetize her TikTok.
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Burned out on their own personalities
College influencers — like everyone else in the content creation game — deal with a paradox: Success hinges on your likability, but having to constantly watch and listen to the most palatable version of yourself yields a high potential for burnout.
“You have to speak through every single thing that you’re doing with your life,” which renders private, personal milestones into professional opportunities, said Alex Prushinski, the founder and CEO of local influencer marketing firm TwoOneFive Agency.
The concept of burning out on your own personality is as old as the first generation of influencers, who took breaks from or quit posting altogether in the mid-2010s because of the need to post high-quality videos daily and the fine line between people disliking you and people disliking your content.
Malcolm and Dall said they received mostly positive attention, but burnout has caused them to all but stop posting. Malcolm has only uploaded six full-length videos to YouTube in the past six months. Dall, meanwhile, hasn’t uploaded a TikTok since October and isn’t sure if she ever will again.
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Dall’s videos depicted a girlboss-in-progress, someone who oscillates between sorority functions, a pharmacy job, and midterms with a calculated amount of effort. The pressure to appear mentally and physically healthy (and always busy) was tiring, Dall said, and made her pretty “unhealthy,” ironically enough.
“I was so focused on the hustle and grind mentality that I wasn’t taking care of myself,” she said.
Now that Dall has settled into a slower routine working in health-care technology sales, she believes her life wouldn’t make for good content.
Some young adult content creators quit altogether. But for those who want to make the jump into the adult world of brand trips and work-life TikTok, how should they do it?
Step one, per Prushinski, is making sure you’re financially stable, able to weather a slow trickle of brand deals. Step two is producing the new content you want — but not selling yourself as something beyond a college student until you have the posts to prove it.
“Your Instagram, your TikTok, and your YouTube is your resumé,” said Prushinski. “In the real world, you’re not going to present your resumé to a job you haven’t demonstrated the skills for yet.”
Morgan has a leg up during the transition. She has a built-in following thanks to her mom, the Real Housewives of New York star whose ruthless tabloid coverage caused enough childhood bullying to nearly put her off content creation altogether.
“I grew up with a dad who believed the only three times you should be in the paper are when you’re born, when you’re married, and when you die,” Morgan said, referring to John Adams Morgan, the heir to Morgan Stanley. “The high school version of me, who was deep in her SATs and a massive nerd, could not handle an online presence.”
Morgan describes her niche as “just dressing well.” She posts Instagram stories for her 74,000 followers that highlight what she wears to classes, fraternity formals, daytime bacchanals and, recently, her graduation.
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Morgan is thinking through her next act, even if she finds putting more of her personality online “really nervewracking.” She’s excited to reach the age of her followers, who Morgan says are mostly 20 to 35 years old, and post her office outfits. Morgan also wants to venture into BookTok, since she’s working on a young adult novel.
Malcolm, however, wants to rebuild. She is considering some big swings — like filming documentaries — but knows her fan base might leave her.
They want to grow into college, but Malcolm wants to grow up.
“I have fallen out of love with making college-centric videos,” Malcolm said. “If my followers don’t want to follow along with my changes, my adulting, I understand.”