Students, be careful what you post about yourself online: That’s the key lesson taken from a recent survey suggesting that many college admissions officers are looking at students’ online profiles before they make their final decisions.

About a quarter of the colleges and universities polled in a recent survey by the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) said their admissions officers research prospective students’ social-networking profiles before extending admission or scholarships. That means a Facebook picture from a weekend party might cost a student a spot on a premier campus.

NACAC released the results of its study last month, documenting how the ubiquity of online social networking–especially on industry giants Facebook and MySpace–is helping campus officials decide which students are rejected and accepted every year. The research did not mention how often a social networking faux pas might influence an admissions decision.

College officials and social-networking experts said reviewing applicants’ online profiles is becoming commonplace in higher education, but a rude comment or questionable picture won’t single-handedly remove a student from consideration.

"I believe most colleges will do whatever it takes to recruit the right type of student to their respective institution," said Mark D. Weinstein, dean of enrollment and marketing at Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind. "Like anything else, our decisions all have consequences attached to them. If we make a bad decision, there is a consequence we must face. … [But] I would not think we would decline a student based solely on Facebook posts or blogs."

While the legality of denying college admissions based on social-networking information is untested, employers in the United States can decide not to hire an applicant solely based on his or her web-based photos, blog entries, or videos, according to the study.

"There is little guidance, [because] many situations simply have not been tested in court," says the study, which was written by Nora Ganim Barnes, chancellor professor of marketing and director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts’ Dartmouth campus.

Roy Christopher, an author and media technology expert, said denying student applications based on racy or inappropriate online photos might be reasonable sometimes, but colleges and universities should guard against placing too much emphasis on internet profiles. 

"I suppose it’s fair game, but why would one do that?" said Christopher, author of Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes, which explores social media, among other topics. "In some situations, an institution has an image to uphold. In others, they’re just looking for a reason not to admit someone."

Ganim Barnes’ research also examined how colleges and universities are using social-networking tools to attract recent high school graduates and enhance their campuses’ online presence. Many campuses maintain blogs about upcoming events or admissions opportunities, the study says, but 37 percent of colleges in the study did not accept reader comments, meaning prospective students and their families could not engage admissions officers directly.

"By any measure, this is a problem if the goal is to connect with prospective students or alumni through ongoing conversation with the school," Ganim Barnes wrote. "For students and their parents looking to have a conversation online about particular aspects of university life, the lack of interaction through comments can be significant. With more and more schools moving into multiple channels of social media, schools that don’t allow for conversation risk losing engagement with students."

Ganim Barnes wrote that most colleges surveyed did not adequately promote their campus blog. Most respondents said they posted a link to the blog on their school’s home page. But without strategic marketing and monitoring, Ganim Barnes wrote, the blog’s exposure will remain minimal at best.

Expanding the features of a campus blog, such as adding audio and video downloads, is also critical in drawing and maintaining students’ attention, Ganim Barnes wrote.

"When asked what the future plans are for the school’s blog, the most popular answer was that there are no future plans for the blog," she wrote. "This is disconcerting considering the swift movement and evolution of blog technology."

Weinstein said Grace College has used Facebook to recruit and communicate with prospective and current students since 2006. An admissions counselor maintains the Facebook site, keeping visitors up to date with upcoming campus events and college news. Grace also has added a video component to its blog and invites prospective students to interact with admissions officials in the online forum, Weinstein said.

Christopher, the author and social-networking authority, said the college admissions study has one simple message for students preparing their applications: Make sure you manage your online identity carefully, because it might be seen not just by friends and classmates, but college officials and employers as well.

Links:

National Association for College Admissions Counseling research

Grace College


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