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Admissions leaders may be changing their attitudes about the appropriateness of looking at applicants' social media accounts, a new survey finds, with a large share saying they consider it legitimate to view applicants' social media postings. At the same time, only a minority are actually viewing them. And that minority may be shrinking.

The changing attitudes come at a time when social media posts have played key roles in several admissions controversies.

In June, the hot news in admissions was that Harvard University had revoked the acceptances of 10 admitted applicants after they were found to have participated in a private Facebook group called "Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens." The group reportedly included jokes about the Holocaust and abusing children, as well as insulting remarks about members of various racial and ethnic groups.

Then in August a private high school noticed that one of its students -- who never asked for materials to be sent to the University of Rochester -- posted on social media that she was enrolling there. The student had told Rochester she was homeschooled, and when the university realized it hadn't seen her real record and that she had lied, it kicked her out (she had just arrived on campus).

The new survey of admissions officials' opinions was conducted by Kaplan Test Prep. It found that admissions officials at more than two-thirds of colleges (68 percent) say it’s “fair game” for them to review applicants’ social media profiles on sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to help them decide who gets in. At the same time, less than a third of college admissions officials said they actually do what they say is fair game and check out applicants' social media posts.

In fact, the share of admissions officers checking on social media posts is declining. It was 29 percent in the new Kaplan poll, down from 35 percent last year and 40 percent (the high figure since Kaplan has been asking the question) in 2015.

The Kaplan survey included some places where respondents could write in answers. Of those who said it was fair to look at social media posts, typical explanations of reasons why were:

  • “Employers do it all the time. Colleges can do it as well.”
  • “I think if things are publicly accessible without undue intrusion, it’s OK. If it’s searchable, it’s fair game.”
  • “We don’t do this, but we could. I think high school seniors make poor choices sometimes when they put stuff online.”

Of admissions officers who said that viewing social media of applicants was inappropriate, these were typical responses:

  • “Their application should be the sole decider.”
  • “We use social media for recruitment, not admissions.”
  • “We only look at social media if the applicant includes or provides it.”

Kaplan also surveyed high school students and found that 70 percent agree that social media posts are fair game in the admissions process. That's an increase from the last time Kaplan asked the question, in 2014, when only 58 percent said it was fair game.

The Data From Inside Higher Ed Survey

Inside Higher Ed's survey last year found that only a minority of colleges have admissions officers routinely check applicants' social media accounts. The share was larger among private institutions (13 percent) than public institutions (2 percent).

Asked if colleges should check the social media accounts of applicants, only a small minority agreed, but on this question the responses were close among public (15 percent) and private (14 percent). Larger shares of admissions leaders say that, even if the institutions don't check regularly, if they learn about bigotry posted on social media by applicants, they should factor that in to admissions decisions. At public institutions, 27 percent of admissions directors agreed that such consideration was appropriate, while 54 percent of private admissions directors said so.

Of course to many applicants, the question that really matters is whether their social media posts can lead to a rejection or -- as was the case at Harvard -- the revocation of an admissions offer.

It turns out that these actions are rare, but not unheard-of, and more common at private than at public institutions. Four percent of admissions directors at independent colleges said their institutions had rejected students or revoked acceptances at least four times in the last two years. And at 14 percent of private colleges, that has happened at least once.

Number of Times in Last Two Years Decisions Have been Revoked or Applications Denied Over Social Media Posts

Number of Times Public Private
Once 1% 7%
Two or three times 2% 3%
Four or more times 1% 4%

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