LAS VEGAS >> Few college-bound kids lose their shot, and their slot, at their dream school once they get in, but it happened at one of the world’s most elite institutions and for a reason that has, until recently, hardly registered in the university admissions process: social media.
Harvard University’s decision to rescind admission offers to 10 incoming freshmen because of offensive Facebook posts comes at a time of heightened attention to free speech and student conduct on American college campuses, and has stirred debate far beyond the halls of the Ivy League school.
Other schools say it’s an eye-opener for those involved in the admissions process.
“We’re going to continue to watch how this unfolds and, with other higher ed institutions, learn from it,” said Janet Bonkowski, spokeswoman for the University of Wisconsin in Green Bay.
Harvard rescinded the admission offers after discovering the students had traded offensive images and messages on a private Facebook group, student newspaper The Harvard Crimson reported. The posts were often sexually explicit and mocked Mexicans, the Holocaust, sexual assault and child abuse.
The Cambridge, Mass., university declined to comment, but the school does tell accepted students their offers can be withdrawn if their behavior “brings into question their honesty, maturity or moral character.”
Its decision may have been rare, but the situation it addressed was not: young applicants crossing lines in their social media posts.
Mike Reilly, a former college admissions officer in Washington state and now an executive with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said Harvard’s move can be seen as incongruent with free speech.
But Nancy Beane, a high school counselor in Atlanta and president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said zero tolerance for racist comments should be the standard for all institutions of higher education.
“We’re all humans. We’re all going to make mistakes and make poor choices in our lives, but there are consequences,” Beane said. “I’m not sure why we’ve decided people can say whatever they want, do whatever they want, and there are no consequences for it.”
In 2015, the national counselors association surveyed its members at more than 1,700 colleges and found less than a third reported rescinding an admissions offer each year. Nearly 70 percent of those colleges said it was because of a dishonest application, while 20 percent said it was over a disciplinary issue. Social media behavior wasn’t considered a reason to drop a student.
David Cruz, 22, who is studying hospitality management at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, said Harvard did the right thing. The transfer student pointed to colleges across the country that have been criticized for not doing enough when it comes to troublesome student conduct, from reported sex assaults to racist incidents.
“Their students acted on their own, but that also represents the school,” Cruz said. “Whatever you post, everyone can see it, whether you’re trying to hide it or not.”
Some admissions officers can and do use Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites when assessing applicants, though they generally don’t patrol the internet for damaging information. Instead, they consider online posts when something specific is brought to their attention.
Still, social media content being used to oust a student is uncommon. The University of Wisconsin, for instance, doesn’t check applicants’ social media accounts and doesn’t have plans to start.
In general, dropping an admitted student is a last-resort move, reserved for the most egregious cases. Even then, the college usually will attempt to keep the student by confronting them with the hope that an explanation and a slap on the wrist will resolve the issue.
Harvey Mudd College in California has never rescinded an offer because of a social media profile, said Peter Osgood, its admissions director. But he recalls one instance in which school officials discussed an objectionable post with an admitted applicant.
“This matter was dealt with privately and discretely, and that student became a wonderful citizen for the college, even a much valued tour guide,” Osgood said.
DON’T TRY TO BE FUNNY ONLINE, EXPERTS SAY
Google yourself. Curate your online photos. The general rule of thumb, as one private high school advises its students: Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.
Guidance counselors have warned college applicants for years to mind their social media posts but can now cite a high-profile example at Harvard University, which revoked offers of admission to 10 students for offensive Facebook posts.
Colleges rarely revoke admission for online offenses, but social media’s role in the college admission process is a growing reality. Here are some experts’ tips on what to post — and not post — if you’re trying to get into college.
What research shows
Research from Kaplan Test Prep suggests online scrutiny of college applicants is increasing. Of 365 admissions officers surveyed, 35 percent said they check Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites to learn more about applicants, according to a poll released in February. Kaplan Test Prep has conducted annual surveys on the subject since 2008, when 10 percent of admissions officials said they checked applicants’ social media pages.
The Harvard case highlights that “admissions doesn’t necessarily end at the acceptance letter,” says Yariv Alpher, executive director of research for Kaplan, the test-preparation company.
The case included jokes about the Holocaust and sexual assault that were shared on a private Facebook group for incoming Harvard freshmen, according to The Harvard Crimson, which broke the news earlier this month.
The grandmother rule
San Francisco University High School seniors are given a warning each fall to clean up their online presence — and nix any posts they wouldn’t show Grandma, said Jon Reider, director of college counseling at the elite private school.
“The mythical grandmother is held up as an icon of moral standards,” Reider said.
Another word of wisdom: Don’t make jokes online.
“Unless you are certified as being the funniest kid in the class, don’t be funny,” Reider said. “A sense of humor can be dangerous online.”
Don’t brag, especially about wrongdoing
Colgate University admissions officers don’t routinely cruise prospective students’ social media sites, says Dean of Admissions Gary L. Ross.
“However, there are occasions, very rarely, where something might be brought to our attention, and it would be foolish for us, if the matter is serious enough, not to check that out,” Ross said.
He cited a case from a few years ago where a student bragged on social media that she applied early to Colgate and another institution, which violates an agreement students sign to apply early to only one school.
“That was brought to our attention. I was in touch with the other dean of admission, and we both agreed it was in violation of each institution’s rules, and the student was denied at both.”
Edit online usernames
Make sure your email address is appropriate, says Nancy Beane, associate director of college counseling at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta, and president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Silly, vulgar or otherwise unprofessional usernames might look good to teenagers but send the wrong message to adults.
Beane also advises students to be mindful of how they treat others online, including comments and trolling of other accounts.
More do’s and don’ts
The Princeton Review offers social media tips for college applicants, including “Google yourself” to see what turns up.
“Maybe you’ve made a comment on a blog that you’d rather not have show up, or a friend has tagged you in an unflattering photo,” the Princeton Review says in a tip sheet on its website.
It also advises students to check their privacy settings to know what can be seen publicly, and to edit their online photo galleries.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, so make sure you’re OK with what those words might be.”