To Friend or Reject

When journalists have noted in the past year that some admissions officers were checking out applicants’ pages on Facebook or other social networks, there were murmurs online from high school students worried about whether their virtual personalities were suitable. And there were many warnings from guidance counselors and parents about maintaining a clean profile. Some, however, wondered if the Facebook surfing was really widespread in admissions offices.

The reality is that a significant number of colleges are reviewing some applicants’ social network pages, but that institutions do not appear to have adopted a routine of checking online personalities in this way.

A report being released today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling finds that 26 percent of colleges are using search engines to conduct research on potential students, and 21 percent are using social networking sites.

While the NACAC report characterizes this level of activity as significant enough to merit attention, it’s not the case that one quarter of colleges’ admissions offices are counting friends, tracking moods or looking for photographs of drunken students for thousands and thousands of applicants. The survey found “no reports of checking every applicant.”

Rather, colleges are using these Web sources of information “to verify information,” particularly on “candidates for scholarships or entry into high demand programs with limited spaces.” The common view, according to the report, is this: “No school wants to announce the winner of a prestigious scholarship only to have compromising pictures turn up on the Internet the next day.”

But does such use of online materials as a “precaution” raise legal or ethical issues?

While the report notes that there are very few legal cases in this area, it is generally agreed that colleges are within their rights to review such material and to use it in admissions decisions. Invasion of privacy is not an issue once students post material in public Web sites, and there are not issues of discrimination as long as colleges don’t use information to engage in illegal actions (such as discriminating against a student based on race or religion that is identified on a Web site).

At the same time, the report warns that there are ethical issues to consider, such as how such information will be “systematically reviewed,” whether efforts will be made to verify the identity of applicants whose online materials are examined, determining who can do such reviews, and deciding on “the standards by which this information will be evaluated.”

More broadly, there is the question of deciding how much weight to give such material, the report says, and the potential concern about whether any particular Facebook activity or posting in fact correlates with college success.

The report was prepared based on a survey of 453 four-year colleges and universities, public and private, with competitive and non-competitive admissions. The report on the survey was prepared by Nora Ganim Barnes, a professor of marketing at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, and director of the UMass Center for Marketing Research.

The survey also asked the admissions offices whether they are using blogging or social networks to recruit students and shape institutional images. Many are, with blogging the most popular activity.

At the same time, while the report suggests that colleges using these tools need to embrace the interactivity and transparency that are key Web values, it indicates that this doesn’t always happen. For example, 37 percent of admissions offices with blogs don’t accept comments on them.

And the survey also suggests that even as admissions offices may still be experimenting with how to use social media, they are aware of their importance. A larger percentage (53 percent) than use any single social media tool report that they monitor sites for "buzz" about their institutions. (Inside Higher Ed)

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