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Harvard Rescinds College Acceptance, Spurring Social Media Debate Once Again

By Christine Cunneen

The ramifications of social media usage are again in the news.  Recent stories of Harvard rescinding an acceptance offer of a student after finding out he had used racial slurs in the past has been permeating social media platforms and mainstream news over the past couple of weeks.

Kyle Kashuv, the student involved, is a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida.  After Harvard admitted Kashuv, who was reportedly second in his high school class, with a 1550 SAT score, it was brought to their attention that he had made repeated derogatory racist comments via text and Google Docs in 2016.  Kashuv has stated that the comments were made when he was 16 years old and prior to the school shooting, which was a life-altering experience.   He says he was embarrassed by it and the comments are not “indicative of who [he is] or who [he’s] become in the years since.”

Harvard sent a letter to Kashuv and said it “reserve[d] the right to withdraw an offer of admission.”  In his response to Harvard, Kashuv apologized “unequivocally” for his previous actions.  He also contacted the college’s Office of Diversity Education and Support to “begin a dialogue that [he] hope[d] will be the foundation of future growth.”  Harvard responded on June 3rd, rescinding his acceptance.

As is typical in these situations, Kashuv’s predicament drew mixed reactions, with some saying he deserved to be forgiven (most 16-year-olds make mistakes and grow from them), while others are saying Harvard made the right decision (colleges are, in fact, specifically looking at the academics and behavior of teens).  Now, because of extremely thoughtless comments he’s made in his past, just like thousands of other teens, and adults, for that matter, he has missed not only the opportunity of a lifetime, but also the deadline for many colleges and had already turned down other offers.

  • He was wrong? Yes.
  • He should have known better? Yes.
  • He showed remorse?
  • The consequences are fair? Still unknown in many people’s opinions.

His situation is a reminder to all of us that comments we make and actions we take online, even those we think are “private,” can resurface at any time and be used against us.

Unfortunately, this scenario is nothing new, especially for the ivy league school, who made headlines in 2017 after pulling acceptance offers from 10 incoming freshmen after they reportedly made explicit racist and sexually offensive comments in a Facebook group.  However, amidst increasing privacy concerns over the past couple of years, the tide could be starting to shift.  According to a 2018 Kaplan Test Prep survey, only 25% of college admissions officers now browse social media profiles to learn more about admissions candidates, representing a 15% decline from the 40% who did so in 2015.  When asked if it’s “fair game” to check social media profiles to help make admissions decisions, 57% agreed–down from 68% only one year prior, in 2017.

Social media searches can also result in positive outcomes.  A previous Kaplan survey asked about positive and negative impacts resulting from content found on social media.  Some positive impact examples included:

  • “One student described on Twitter that she facilitated an LGBTQ panel for her school, which wasn’t in her application. This made us more interested in her overall and encouraged us to imagine how she would help out the community.”
  • “There’s such a negative stereotype of social media that people often forget about the positive effects of it. One student had won an award and had a picture with their principal on their personal page, and it was nice to see.”
  • “One young lady started a company with her mom, so it was cool to visit their website,” added another admissions officer.

It also pointed to some negative impact examples:

  • “We found a student’s Twitter account with some really questionable language. It wasn’t quite racist, but it showed a cluelessness that you’d expect of a privileged student who hadn’t seen much of the world. It really ran counter to the rest of her application.”
  • “A young man who had been involved in a felony did not disclose his past, which is part of our admissions process. His social media page shared his whole story. If he had been forthcoming, we would not have rescinded his acceptance offer, but we had to.”
  • One admissions officer said that pictures of a student “brandishing weapons” gave him pause when deciding whether to admit the applicant.

Yariv Alpher, Kaplan Test Prep’s Executive Director of Research explains the factors and trends involved.  “We’re seeing the result of combining trends here. On the one hand, students are savvier. They are more careful with what they post and are increasingly using more private social networks. In some cases they also create fake accounts that they only share with friends, but which are not easily attributed to them. On the other hand, admissions officers are increasingly conscious of the need to maintain students’ privacy, and are more inclined to use social media in a more targeted way. Regardless, social media remains an admissions factor for a significant number of colleges, so students should be mindful of what they share.”

The ramifications of social media usage go well beyond college admittance.  They affect employment decisions, where employers are performing Social Media Searches to discover information about applicants and current employees. They even go so far as the Federal government.  In fact, Visa applicants to the United States are now required to submit information about social media accounts they have used in the past five years under a State Department policy that started just this month.  This account information would give the government access to photos, locations, dates of birth, and other personal data commonly shared on social media.

Whether its college admission, employment, or gaining acceptance into the country, compliance and privacy issues abound.   While there is no doubt that social media is a minefield of information about a person and could be a useful source in helping to evaluate their character, when it comes to employment, specifically, employers must ensure that these searches protect applicant privacy and don’t run afoul of the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) or standards set by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  Even the appearance of a decision not to hire someone based on a negative impression related to race, gender, religion, or other protected classes could subject employers to a discrimination lawsuit.

Through it all, college admissions officers and employers need to be careful not to violate candidate privacy. Social media screens should be drawn only from user-generated, publicly available information and not from third-party content or password-protected sites. If the applicant’s social media settings are set to public, that information is open for anyone, including potential future employers, to review.  However, if their profile is set to private, the college admissions officer or employer cannot try to bypass those settings without risking exposure to potential liability down the road.

According to Roy Maurer with Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM), “[e]xperts agree that if employers decide to screen an applicant through social media, the best way to reduce legal risk is by having a third-party vendor perform the search instead of doing it in-house. Background-check providers that perform social media screening must comply with the FCRA and produce accurate reports scrubbed of protected characteristics.”


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