The ethics of Facebook-stalking university applicants

Posted by reyjunco on November 8, 2012 in Commentary, Research |

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/

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  • You raise some good points but I’m afraid that I am too ignorant of precisely how applicants are typically evaluated to effectively judge your conclusion.  In particular, I don’t know how or if publicly-available information is used in the admissions process when that information has not been submitted by applicants.  If it is a common practice then I have many questions along the lines of issues you have raised: Why is this material used?  How is it used?  Should it be used? But if those questions can be answered then I would be uncomfortable making Facebook off limits for admissions staff if they typically include other publicly-available information about applicants.

    I taught a social networking class for undergrads a few years ago and the final was to craft a policy recommendation addressing this very issue of Facebook and college/university admissions.  I was surprised that most students said that it was ok to use it; it seemed that they were resigned to the fact that if it was publicly-available then it’s fair game even if they didn’t really like the idea.  I really liked the recommendations that would offer applicants the option of allowing their Facebook information to be accessed by admissions counselors.  (I summarized some of this at http://mistakengoal.com/blog/2009/06/16/students-no-longer-viewing-facebook-as-theirs/)

  • Publicly available information is not typically used in the admissions process. The reason? It’s unfair. Some applicants will have a good amount of publicly available information (an athlete for instance) while others will have none. Furthermore, just like I propose with checking Facebook profiles, there’s no way to evaluate applicants fairly on information they haven’t submitted as part of the standard set of application materials. 

  • Michael J Stark

    This post was timely as we are gearing up for our selection of Resident Assistants in the residence halls.  We’ve had a bit of conversation about whether or not the hiring staff should look at any social media related to the student candidates, and whether that information skews our evaluation of them.  If you don’t mind, I will be sharing your post with my staff.

    You references questions about residence life monitoring Facebook, etc, and I am wondering what is being monitored?  Does it have to do with student conduct, whether to permit students to live in the residence hall, and/or hiring of student staff?

    We’ve included a statement on our student leader hiring applications about social media: 

    Statement on Social Media


    The Internet is not secure
    nor is it anonymous, whatever you post to social media sites, including photos,
    can be copied, forwarded, and/or searched at any point in time. Our Department
    recognizes what you do on your own time is your personal choice. However,
    postings and behaviors associated with you that may violate Marquette
    University’s Student Policies and Procedures may affect your candidacy as a
    potential employee.

    Our stance is that we will not check social media for any candidate unless specific concerns are brought to our attention, and then we will follow-up with that student.

    Thank you for the referencing that learning occurs through making mistakes and working through problems.  I do believe that we are biased towards wanting the ideal candidate/applicant that does not need much from us, when we should be really be evaluating their trainability (regarding employment).

    Thank you for the post.


  • Thanks for sharing your social media statement, Michael. Hopefully, other institutions will follow suit. I especially like “Our Department recognizes what you do on your own time is your personal choice. However, postings and behaviors associated with you that may violate Marquette University’s Student Policies and Procedures may affect your candidacy as a potential employee.

    Our stance is that we will not check social media for any candidate unless specific concerns are brought to our attention, and then we will follow-up with that student.”
    Specific and balanced. To answer your question, my reference to residence life monitoring Facebook was related mostly to student conduct issues. 

  • Thanks for your thoughtful ideas Ray and Michael. I do appreciate that the position of Residence Assistant is a sensitive one as you are hiring someone to have close contact with young students living at your university.

    Still, I am deeply troubled by the 5 words you choose to start your Statement on Social Media with, 

    “The Internet is not secure…”

    While I would not exactly argue that your statement is inherently false, by choosing to open with this point, you align yourself with the massive propaganda onslaught that tells our young people that The Internet and Openness are definitely dangerous, probably evil, and a must to avoid. You perpetuate the fear-mongering for privacy that old media and many others use to prop up their business model to the disadvantage of the young people they feed bad information to.

    I certainly don’t believe that your motives align with those of old media, still, while your motives may be more noble, your statements work with the climate of new media fear advanced by so many, including old media, and even President Obama, chastising students to fear openness and to seek and build a more closed, private world. This can’t be the purpose and vision of your university.

  • Thank you Rey, Michael and Jessica–these are all great points! 

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