Future Undergrads: Colleges are Cyber-Stalking You and There's Nothing You Can Do About It

Around 25% of admissions officers at the country's top 500 colleges cyber-stalk applicants using websites like Facebook and Google, and more than one-third of them say they've found information that they've used against prospective students — up from 12% last year.

"My advice to students is to be smart and think twice about what you post online," Jeff Olson, vice president of data science at Kaplan Test Prep, which released the new statistics, told the Wall Street Journal. Well, yes, DUH. Every college counselor/teacher/parent in the nation should teach students how to Google themselves (sure, that'll also foster a generation of young adults who are even more narcissistic than millennials, but we can tackle that issue later) and remind them that whatever results show up for them may potentially show up for colleges, too.

But Olson's advice is becoming increasingly less helpful as college officials grow more adept at (and more comfortable with the idea of) web sleuthing. It's easy to blame the statistics on teenagers who, despite story after story about the internet fucking people over, still don't see the problem with posting Facebook photos of "the morning after LOL" with bongs strewn about or going on Twitter rants about how "Britney is a ho!!!!!!!!!" But admissions officials told the WSJ that they sometimes Google students after red flags are raised in interviews or recommendations and subsequently judge them on less controllable aspects of their online presence beyond the amount of red cups in their profile pics.

Colleges said they had turned up cases of plagiarism, accusations of sexual assault, bullying, alcohol and drug use thanks to the internet. "We leave it up to the individual admissions officers, and if something gives them cause to scratch their head, then they do it," said Paul Marthers, vice president for enrollment at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Martha Blevins Allman, dean of admissions at Wake Forest University, said the college doesn't use search results "as a single indicator and we don't search blindly, but if we have other suspicions, we will look."

That sounds reasonable, but here's the thing: good kids make mistakes when they're growing up. Should a MIP for drinking a beer at the wrong place at the wrong time or a peer-pressured cheating incident define your life before you even have your driver's license? Consider this:

One applicant Mr. Marthers said he encountered at his previous job at Reed College was asked to leave a private high school for bullying. Mr. Marthers called the counselor at that school who said, "It's not something I would ever put in writing but, yes, that's what happened," Mr. Marthers said. The student was denied admission.

Why was the student asked to leave? How old was he? Did she get the chance to explain whether she had learned from her mistakes?

And then there's cyber-sleuthing after the fact:

The University of the South in Tennessee, spokeswoman Laurie Saxton said a student who had been accepted for the class of 2015 and was at the university for a summer session ahead of his freshman year posted "inappropriate comments" on the school's Facebook page for the freshman class.

"We sat him down and told him that was not the right way to communicate," Ms. Saxton said. "He removed his comments."

I hate to emulate your Tea Partying sister-in-law who rants about free speech, but how inappropriate were his comments? Should you ever expect people to stop monitoring your actions?

Maybe not; if you want to use the internet, you should be prepared to be judged on your digital trail by prospective colleges, bosses, and lovers. "To blindside someone by looking at some side of them without them knowing is different from every other part of the college process," one college student complained to the WSJ. But there's no way to go back to the pre-internet era. Students (and everyone else) should wise up and take control of their online presence, but admissions officials should also think back to what they were doing at age 14 and ask themselves where they'd be now if everyone else knew, too.

Web Profiles Haunt Students [WSJ]

Image via LanKS/Shutterstock.