April 21, 2017

Colleges weigh a variety of factors when deciding whether to admit an applicant. Students know the importance of test scores, grades, recommendations, extracurricular activities, and the college application essay. But there’s another factor that may actually be important as well.

According to a recent Kaplan Test Prep survey, the number of college admissions officers who say social media affects an applicant’s chances of being accepted has increased. Currently, only 35% of college admissions officers turn to social media for more information on an applicant. However, 42% say what they find online negatively impacts their decision, up from 37% last year. On the other hand, 47% say it has positively affected their decision, which is also up from 37% last year. Applicants can change their privacy settings so their social media data can’t be accessed. But what if –hypothetically- a college asked a prospective student for his or her log in information?

In some states, it is illegal for public colleges and universities to ask college applicants for password information. According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), this practice is no longer permitted in Arkansas, California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

As an example, Wisconsin’s statute states that no educational institution may, “Request or require a student or prospective student, as a condition of admission or enrollment, to disclose access information for the personal Internet account of the student or prospective student or to otherwise grant access to or allow observation of that account.”

The statute also states that no institution may, “Refuse to admit a prospective student because the prospective student refused to disclose access information for, grant access to, or allow observation of the prospective student's personal Internet account.”

However, the NCSL list only covers a handful of states, and does not apply to private schools. It should be noted, however,  that I could not find any instances of colleges that actually engaged in this practice.  Whether this is a hypothetical situation or not, a law that forbids a school from asking for login credentials does not stop the institution from using other means. For example, Wisconsin’s statue also states that an institution is not prohibited from, “viewing, accessing, or using information about a student or prospective student that can be obtained without access information or that is available in the public domain.”

There are no laws against Google searches, and it would appear that many schools are utilizing this tool and other means. Bradley Shear, managing partner at Shear Law, specializes in social media, privacy, reputation, and technology and he believes that social media searches are widespread among higher ed institutions. “Regardless of the number of college admissions officers who say they don’t check social media, and in spite of the statutes prohibiting schools from asking for log-in data, the vast majority of schools are indeed searching online for any incriminating posts or photos,” Shear explains. With or without a password, he says that some admissions officers are either searching themselves, or the schools are hiring former investigators and police officers to identify applicants.

And, Shear believes that ethically, this is a slippery slope.  For one reason, he says the information is unauthenticated. How many people are there in any given city with the same name? Even trying to narrow the information to high school seniors or recent grads could yield several duplicates.

Mistaken identity is a serious enough problem that attorneys general in over 30 states complained that liens and civil judgments were being erroneously reported on consumer credit reports. According to the new guidelines effective July 1, 2017, liens and civil judgments cannot be added to a credit report unless (1) the name, (2) the address, and (3) either the birth date or the social security number have been verified.

Hopefully, this level of personal information would not be included in an applicant’s social media profile. However, a Pew Research Center report reveals that 93% of teens between the ages of 14 and 17 share their real name, 94% share a photo, and 83% include their birthdate.  Also, among this age group, 76% share their school’s name, and 72% share their city or town.

Shear also explains that applicants can be discriminated against because of their connection to others. In other words, they’re being judged by their friends and family members.

Shear relays one incident that stands out. “There was an applicant who had top scores – he was a great kid, with a very clean digital profile.” The applicant did not mention anything about his parents on social media. However, the interviewer stated that he found some Tweets by the parents, and indirectly was able to connect the dots and figured out this applicant’s family was wealthy and had political beliefs that the interviewer did not agree with. “The conversation veered off topic very quickly - but what did the family’s wealth, their vacation photos, and their political beliefs have to do with the student’s application?” Shear asks.

When students complete an application, they can’t be asked about their religion, politics, sexual orientation, etcetera, because this information could be used against them. However, Shear says that colleges can go online to discover this – and other types of information, which nullifies the original intent of privacy.

Suppose the school is able to verify that the social media account is for the correct applicant, and it is not able to glean information from friends and family members. Shear still believes this practice is problematic. “We’re talking about kids and they are going to say dumb things and do dumb things, and we shouldn’t hold it against them.” He questions the logic of deciding that individuals at this young age are unredeemable based on social media posts. “Instead, let’s hope they grow from these experiences,” Shear says. “Schools need students from different backgrounds and experiences, and you hope that these individuals leave college a better person than they started.”

As teens transition to college, it’s expected that many of them will probably make a lot of mistakes regarding how they allocate their finances, how much time they spend studying, etcetera, because their parents have doled out money and handled their finances, in addition to monitoring their school work and study time.

As a result, there’s an understanding – and at least temporarily, an acceptance that young college students may overspend their budgets, they may oversleep for classes, and they may spend more time partying than studying.

But, when schools check the social media accounts of these applicants, does this imply that there is no mercy, no room for growth, and no opportunity for development in this area? And if so, is that fair when many parents, partially out of respect for their teen’s privacy – and also because many of them may not be digitally savvy – don’t monitor social media activity as closely as other areas of a teen’s life?

I’m a member of the “email generation,” so that was – and still is – one of my primary ways of communicating professionally and personally. And while my email account doesn’t contain any crazy photos or outrageous comments, even I would be uncomfortable if someone said, “Give me your password so I can read your email communication.” On one level, I understand that anything I transmit digitally could be read by someone else, but there’s still an assumption that my communication will only be read by the intended recipients.

For teens, social media is the primary means of communication. And they share anything and everything. Anything and everything includes what they ate for breakfast; how they can’t decide which pair of jeans to wear; why there’s a long line at McDonalds. They post such selfies as “This is me, sitting in my room, bored.”

And since social media is as natural to them as breathing, they also tend to share their passions, disappointments, complaints, and various levels of silliness via this vertical. For many of them, a “filter” is a special effect for a selfie, not the ability to use discretion or self-censor what they post.  “Most K-12 schools don’t have the ability to provide digital education to our kids,” Shear laments. “And because they’re not being provided the tools to deal with these digital issues, and then for colleges to hold it against them, that raises some questions, such as ‘What is the real mission of a college?’”

However, Grant Cooper, a career coach and resume writer, believes the use of social media in determining an applicant's suitability is both fair and ethical. "Universities use a wide range of assessment tools and practices to ensure that applicants possess the appropriate extracurricular, academic, and psychological profiles to succeed within their institutions."

According to the Kaplan Test survey, some of the examples of negative information found through social media searches included an applicant using questionable, borderline-racist comments, and an applicant brandishing weapons. From “Girls Gone Wild” to drunk frat brothers and overly-aggressive athletes, college students can pose a public relations nightmare for colleges and universities. And while the names of the offenders may be forgotten, negative incidents can haunt schools for a long time, negatively impacting the school’s reputation and ability to recruit and retain students.

"One unfortunate social media photo or a single questionable comment is generally not enough to bar a candidate from consideration,” Cooper says. “But a series of media posts or photos showing a pattern of immature or inappropriate behavior would absolutely be a red flag."

Another one of the examples in the survey included an applicant who was a felon and did not disclose this information on his application. According to the admissions officer, the individual was not admitted because he lied to the school- although for some reason, he felt the need to reveal the entire story on social media.

According to an article in the New York Times, Auburn is one of 16 universities that asks applicants if they’ve ever been charged with, convicted of, or pled guilty or no contest to a crime (besides minor traffic violations). Also, the University of Alabama asks applicants if they’ve ever received “a written or oral warning not to trespass on public or private property?”

But is there a rationale to this line of questioning? The Times article also reports that Virginia Tech added a question about arrests or convictions as a result of the April 2007 incident at that school in which a student killed 32 people and wounded 17 more before taking his own life. It turns out that the individual had been accused of stalking in the past.

To what extent are these schools asking these questions and scouring social media profiles searching for potential warning signs? Applicants posting inappropriate messages about sexual assault, sharing videos of themselves drinking and driving, texting and driving, and engaging in other reckless behavior could give admission counselors pause. While it’s debatable if past behavior is the best indicator of future behavior, to be fair, at least colleges consistently apply this standard to applicants. That’s why high school grades and entrance exam scores are so important: it is assumed that students with good grades and high scores will continue this behavior in college.

According to The Hechinger Report, some college are using social media in yet another way. For example, Ithaca College created a private, social networking site for the school’s applicants. They can interact with fellow applicants, along with student ambassadors, faculty, and staff. However, the school analyzes such data as the number of photos the students upload to the site, and how many contacts they make to determine who is more or less likely to enroll at Ithaca.

On one hand, college is expensive for the student, the student’s family, and the taxpayers who ultimately back student loans. And it’s expensive to schools when students drop out, resulting in a loss of tuition and fees.  But that’s not the only loss. Colleges and universities are ranked based on a variety of factors, including graduation rates. So, schools want students who are more likely to fit into their environment and have the greatest chance of achieving academic success.

In that respect, it seems logical that schools would want to analyze social media data to recruit the best students. However, it’s not clear how much weight is given to these interactions. Would students with limited Internet access be unfairly overlooked? What about students who just don’t engage a lot on social media? (And yes, while small in number, I’m sure those students exist.)

Social media plays an increasingly important role in society. However, is that role too large when evaluating the potential of young applicants? Perhaps. But I also believe that a school has the right to determine what it deems to be acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior. In the 21st Century, colleges have become businesses selling a product to consumers. And managing the company’s brand is job #1. It’s a hard lesson for careless teenagers to learn. As former baseball player Vernon Law would say, “Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.”

Terri Williams 
writes for a variety of clients including USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, Investopedia, and Robert Half. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.