Colleges generally don’t have formal policies about using the Internet to gather information on prospective students. But since Facebook and blogs have become major communications tools for high school students, questions are being raised about their possible role in the admissions process.
At most colleges, there’s barely time to read the huge numbers of applications being submitted, so it’s hard to imagine they have time to do additional research on each applicant. Certainly, I wouldn’t expect admissions officers who have been on the job for years to start doing Internet searches. But a 23-year-old admissions officer who has grown up using the computer for everything may turn to the Net as another source of student information.
If an application raises some question or concern, someone will investigate. A student who claims to have won an award or done community service for an organization that doesn’t sound familiar may very well be Googled.
This is tricky territory, with freedom of speech as well as privacy issues. If you express an opinion that is offensive to admissions officers, or contradicts the philosophy of the school, are you risking a rejection, and is that legitimate? At a conference last year, admissions officers discussed how they would handle a student who expressed clearly racist opinions in an application. If the student has discussed his views in an application essay, then he obviously wants admission officers to know them, but what if they happen to come upon his writing on a Facebook page? You could argue that posting those views for the world to read means the student didn’t want to keep them private, but I wonder about potential lawsuits from students who believe they were rejected based on information that was not part of their application.
Ideally, colleges would make it clear that applicants may be subject to a background check. Applications do ask if students have committed a crime or been subject to disciplinary action by their high school. Given the need to make sure the campus community is safe, it’s understandable that college administrators would want information that could reveal a potentially dangerous person. Of course, making that determination is not easy.
If a male student writes derogatory comments about women, how do admissions officers know if he could be a danger to female students or if he’s just exhibiting teenage male bravado to impress his friends? Is poor judgment a reason to deny someone admission to college? If a student blogs about getting high all the time, what should admissions officers do?
This issue is being discussed in the college admissions community. Even if admissions officers don’t have time to check out every applicant, they will react if information is brought to their attention. And that can happen. One admissions officer recently noted that “helpful” people have contacted him, offering information about an applicant that he might have missed. Sometimes the information has been valid, but in one case, someone directed him to false information that was intended to discredit a student. One of the risks when admissions officers use sites like Facebook is that the information they get might not be true.
It’s not just about college applications. Many employers routinely search the Internet for information about prospective employees. Those sexy photographs might seem like fun now, but they could be the end of that great job you were excited about.
As a society, we seem to have lost a sense of privacy and discretion. But students need to understand that revealing personal information on the Net can have unanticipated and potentially serious long-term consequences. Blogger beware.