Skip to main content

Does Facebook hurt your college chances?

By Nicolaus Mills, Special to CNN
updated 12:06 PM EST, Fri November 16, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A survey shows more colleges are finding information online that hurts applicants
  • Nicolaus Mills: Why aren't college-bound students and their parents lashing out in anger?
  • He says colleges should tell students that what they write online can be held against them
  • Mills: Applicants should be less naïve about their Facebook or Google posts

Editor's note: Nicolaus Mills is professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of "Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower."

(CNN) -- As a professor who sees firsthand how tough it is to get into college, I expected to hear widespread howls of protests from high school seniors and their parents when, this fall, a Kaplan Test Prep survey showed that an increasing number of college admissions officers were discovering information on Facebook and Google that hurt a student's acceptance chances.

According to the Kaplan survey, 27% of admissions officers checked Google and 26% looked on Facebook as part of their applicant-review process. Thirty-five percent of those doing so -- compared with 12% in 2011 -- found material that negatively impacted their view of a student.

The results of the survey would, I thought, cause college-bound students and their parents to lash out in anger. Students are under so much stress. College costs are up, and winning the admissions race seems harder than ever.

Nicolaus Mills
Nicolaus Mills

With Harvard's 5.9% acceptance rate and six of the eight Ivy League schools taking in fewer than 10% of their applicants, competition is certainly tough for ambitious students. But for many others, even popular state schools are out of reach. In California, Berkeley and UCLA admit fewer than 22% of their applicants.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



The lack of protests over the survey results tells me that students and their parents are already so frazzled about finding the right college and the money to pay for it that they don't have the energy to fight a new battle. However, this doesn't mean we should brush aside the ethical questions that arise when college admissions officers get information about an applicant from the Internet rather than from the applicant directly.

What is considered private in a student's life that may be found online? Why should material not submitted by applicants to a college be used to judge them? These are questions for which the Kaplan survey, which was anonymous and conducted at 350 schools across the country, failed to provide a consensus answer.

My reaction was to see what I could learn on my own by directly contacting a handful of highly selective schools that could, if they chose, use their resources to go online and check out their applicants.

I asked everyone to answer on the record, and what I found was that none of the admissions officers who responded said they made it a practice to search the Internet for information about their applicants. After that, matters got more complicated.

Debra Shaver, the dean of admissions at Smith College, had this to say of student writing on the Internet: "I do think that students can be held accountable. Those of us at residential colleges are building communities; I want students in my community who behave in a way that is civil and respectful and thoughtful."

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard's influential dean of admission, emphasized that as a general practice, the college does not proactively seek online information about applicants. "That said, we may have occasion to encounter an applicant's digital footprint," he noted in an e-mail. "This often can be positive for applicants to the degree that it helps demonstrate their range of interests and accomplishments, but could be negative if it raises serious questions about character or judgment."

Such measured responses tell me that conscientious admissions deans are not about to turn themselves into online detectives. At the same time, they are not about to turn a blind eye to facts about their applicants -- even if they come across the facts by happenstance. As Carleton's veteran dean of admissions, Paul Thiboutot, pointed out, "We have never ignored information from any source if relevant."

At present, it is unrealistic to expect colleges to come up with a policy on admissions and social media that they can all agree on. But more candor is possible.

As a result of the Supreme Court's 1966 Miranda ruling, police now inform those they arrest that whatever they say can be used against them in a court of law. Colleges that in any form use -- or may use -- the Internet to evaluate their applicants need to commit themselves to a similar, Miranda-style warning.

On their websites and application forms, colleges should explicitly tell all prospective students that anything they write online can be held against them. That's the least they can do for applicants who may be dangerously naïve about the consequences of their Facebook or Google posts.

As for college-bound high school seniors, they also need to change with the times. They should take a page from the Latin maxim "caveat emptor": Let the buyer beware. Their new maxim should be "caveat discipulus": Let the student beware.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Nicolaus Mills.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT