Recently, Kaplan Test Prep released data from a survey showing how college admissions officers check applicant profiles in order to make admissions decisions. This isn’t a new phenomenon: since 2008, I’ve been answering questions about whether residence life, judicial affairs, and other university departments should monitor their students’ Facebook accounts. Here are some reasons why I think such evaluations of applicant Facebook profiles is unethical:
Discrimination in admissions decisions: There is absolutely no way that admissions officers can evaluate student Facebook profiles fairly. First, there is a lack of resources: admissions offices barely have enough staff to keep the machinery of recruitment and the traditional evaluation process going, let alone devote a staff of 10, 100, or 1,000 people to review the Facebook profiles of all entering students.
Even if admissions offices had the necessary resources to evaluate every applicant’s Facebook profile, it would still be incredibly unfair. Not all students are sophisticated enough to hide their profiles from admissions officers (or to create ideal-self profiles). Those who aren’t sophisticated enough are at the mercy of admissions officers looking for an easy way to make their applicant pool smaller. Furthermore, research shows that Internet skills (in this case, sophistication in knowing how to or why you should hide your profile) are related to race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Facebook-stalking applicants then is also a discriminatory admissions practice in the way that we have outlawed other types of discriminatory practices.
Let’s posit, if you will, that there was a way to evaluate all students fairly: why would admissions officers want to evaluate Facebook profiles anyway? If an admissions officer is going to spend time to evaluate a student’s profile, shouldn’t he or she instead spend that time reviewing the student’s criminal record? Or perhaps reviewing how they can place the applicant in a series of courses to help them academically? Or even ensuring that the student will easily integrate into a social support network? Oh yeah, those things would be too hard to do.
Frame of reference: When admissions officers evaluate student profiles they are doing so from their own frame of reference. Oftentimes, admissions officers are typically much older than applicants. Therefore, they evaluate Facebook profiles based on what they would or wouldn’t post with total disregard for what is developmentally appropriate for youth. In my experiences, I have never met an admissions officer with profound knowledge of youth psychological and identity development, let alone how new media affect such processes.
In the Kaplan study, 35% of admissions officers said that they have “discovered something online about an applicant that negatively impacted their application.” Again, this evaluation is more than likely applied unfairly. What might rise to the level of concern for one admissions officer, might not for another. Further, an admissions officer might see something considered Facebook fashionable for youth as inappropriate. Let’s say for example that what the admissions officer sees is indeed “inappropriate” (i.e., distasteful), wouldn’t that be exactly the kind of student you’d want to admit to your university? Colleges and universities have as their primary purpose the mission to educate and help youth develop and therefore, such a student would benefit greatly from further opportunities for growth.
The right to be forgotten: Some of what the 35% of admissions officers have seen on applicant Facebook profiles are, to put it bluntly, mistakes. They may not be seen as mistakes to the applicant at that time. Again, a normal part of the learning and psychological developmental processes of youth is making mistakes and learning from those mistakes. Consider some of the mistakes that you’ve made when you were younger and pick the most embarrassing one. Now imagine that there is a permanent public record of that mistake available for all to see and to evaluate from their own frame. Seen years later or by people who are older or have already navigated the same developmental stages, such behavior is interpreted much more negatively than it should be. With real-name policies on sites like Facebook and a dearth of laws to allow online mistakes to be forgotten, youth are at a great risk of being misunderstood and discriminated against in the application process.
In summary, the practice of Facebook-stalking university applicants must come to an end. If a university admissions office is serious about evaluating a student’s social media presence, then they must first prove why reviewing Facebook profiles is a more effective use of their time than reviewing other data. Furthermore, the admissions office should be prepared to show how they would fairly evaluate Facebook profiles in a manner equal to how they review materials in the traditional evaluation process. I suspect that if the former can ever be rationalized, the latter would be impossible.
Thanks to Annie Shreffler (@annieshreff) for her feedback on a draft of this post.
Image credit: escapedtowisconsin http://www.flickr.com/photos/69805768@N00/3292899689/