More Colleges Check Digital Personae

The number of college admissions officials using Facebook to learn more about an applicant has quadrupled in the past year, underscoring the effect social media has on U.S. culture and academic life, a survey shows. Googling is nearly as prevalent.

The rise suggests a growing acceptance of the practice, despite concerns that it invades student privacy.

"This is the world we live in now," says Paul Marthers, vice president for enrollment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "If you were able to find out that somebody misrepresented themselves in their application, I think it could be used to help you make a decision."

Nearly a quarter (24%) of admissions officials at 359 selective colleges say they used Facebook, up from 6% the previous year, and 20% used Google to help evaluate an applicant, says the survey, conducted by Kaplan Test Prep. Kaplan, which did not identify participating colleges, queried 500 colleges listed in U.S. News & World Report rankings and in Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges.

Of survey takers who went online, 12% say what they found "negatively impacted" the applicant’s chances of admission. Among offenses cited: essay plagiarism, vulgarities in blogs and photos showing underage drinking.

Marthers and others say such checks are not routine. But "if ever a post is brought to our attention, you can be certain we’ll check it out," says Ray Brown, admission dean at Texas Christian University. He says he rejected one applicant who, he discovered through an anonymous tip, had posted pornographic images of herself online.

The debate over whether it’s appropriate for colleges to look beyond what prospective students submit in their applications remains unsettled. Kenyon College explicitly forbids such activity.

"We are trying to practice ethical admissions," Admissions Dean Jennifer Delahunty says. "Reading their Facebook pages is like, in another era, wire-tapping applicants’ phones and reading their diaries."

Marthers says information students post online is "fair game."

Others offer a more positive reason for checking an applicant’s Facebook profile. Wake Forest University Admissions Dean Martha Allman says her younger staffers like to see (an applicant’s) "digital personality."

Although Syracuse University School of Information Studies Professor Anthony Rotolo discourages efforts by admissions officials to "catch" applicants misbehaving online, he encourages them to evaluate a student’s digital literacy skills. Given the importance of social media in society, a student with a strong online presence "could be considered a highly qualified applicant by a reviewer who understood the potential value."

USA Today

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