Scrubbing Students’ Digital Identity

November 22nd, 2013 by Andrea Bennett

Should checking social media profiles be part of the application process?

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The Responsibility Project

If you’re helping your high school student with early college applications, there’s another thing you might want to add to the checklist: doing a social media check. At least, that’s according to the results of research from Kaplan Test Prep.

In the study, 381 college admissions officers answered a Kaplan telephone questionnaire, and 31 percent of them said they had visited an applicant’s Facebook or other personal social media page to learn more about them – an increase of 5 percentage points over last year. Additionally, 30 percent of the admissions officers said that they had discovered information online that had negatively affected an applicant’s prospects for attending the college.

While employers often check social media pages, The New York Times’ Natasha Singer writes, colleges’ lack of formal policy about how they supplement students’ applications with online research is troubling. “Given the impulsiveness of teenagers […] the idea that admissions officers would covertly nose around the social media posts of prospective students seems more chilling,” she writes.

Bradley S. Shear, a lawyer specializing in social media law, told Singer that the trend is a problem because colleges might incorrectly identify the account of a person with the same name as belonging to the applicant, potentially leading to unfair treatment. “Often, false and misleading content online is taken as fact,” he said.

The concerns prompted Singer to call admissions officers at 20 colleges and universities – half of which agreed to interviews. They varied widely on their approach toward using social media – from not using it at all in the admissions process to, in the case of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., actually denying a student entrance for offensive comments he had made about a high school teacher. The admissions officials had been notified by a current undergrad that the student seeking admission, who he had befriended on Facebook, had made the comments online.

But even colleges’ policies on telling students why they were denied admission differed, Singer notes. Some didn’t notify students that their social media was to blame; others did.

As for “sanitizing” social media, Singer writes that high school guidance counselors are now tutoring students in “scrubbing their digital identities” by deleting alcohol-related posts or pictures and creating socially acceptable email addresses. Should students actively amend their social media in the absence of formalized policy? Weigh in.