Admissions officers fear the tech

I just returned from the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admissions Counseling conference (PCACAC – yes, you sound a like chicken pronouncing the acronym). That’s the regional branch, covering DC, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia, of the national group (NACAC) that came out today with a study saying that colleges are increasingly using social networking (duh) and that they are increasingly using search engines to check up on applicants. While NACAC had 26% percent of respondents say they were using search engines, they didn’t have anyone report they were doing so routinely, and some said specifically it was only to check on high profile scholarship applicants and other select students.
While NACAC was conducting a survey of some schools, also known as, “university admissions staff with so much time on their hands they can idly surf the net while reviewing applications,” back here on planet earth I listened in on a well attended session led by folks from Zinch on university use of technology in the recruitment and admissions process. Unlike NACAC, Zinch’s survey of some colleges and universities, also known as, “really hard working schools, although not working so hard they can’t find time to fill out a lengthy survey from a vendor,” found that no schools were reviewing social networking sites/using search engines in the admissions process.
I’ve written before that I think it’s pretty unlikely schools are doing much of this, and I think schools that do are a) risking liability, or at the very least foolishness, since they have no idea of the veracity of the information that might be found and b) pretty creepy. Add to that that most of the admissions officers in the session I attended seemed pretty clueless about web use and very nervous about using those new fangled computer things to try to get around that fad they keep hearing about, “the internet.”
At they same time many of them seem very excited to be using twitter. I suspect this is because a) twitter trends to a much older demographic and b) they like saying, “I tweeted”. I tweeted regularly during the conference, which gives you an idea of how entirely engaged in the proceedings one had to be to follow the rapid fire dialogue.
Mostly admissions officers whined that you (being students and parents) were getting your information from various nefarious places on “the web”. They cited college confidential and wikipedia as the virtual street corners where you all are getting much misinformation. I want to state unequivocal support for these sentiments as I feel strongly that you should only get your misinformation from the source, our own university websites, which have been lovingly crafted to be nearly unnavigable and filled with exactly the information you tend not to be seeking. Be seeing you.


5 Responses

  1. A few colleges are doing an excellent job of combining technology and cheap student labor to inject misinformation into College Confidential and (probably under the cover of dark) into Wikipedia. MIT comes to mind as an exemplar of this genre. They pay “student bloggers” to write stuff for MIT’s admissions blogs and (what a coincidence) those same students hang out on College Confidential waiting for prey. The students even have a secret backchannel, communicating among themselves to coordinate their replies to questions on hot topics like dysfunctional dining, campus police brutality, grade deflation, and (horrors) suicide.

    From a student’s perspective, this must be an awesome gig. What other campus job could you do in your dorm room at 1:00 AM while drinking a beer (legally, of course) and wearing jammies?

    • The process of having students as a response group came up at the conference. Most schools complained of trouble finding students to do the job consistently – clearly they have failed to highlight the perks you so eloquently describe! For my part – I think it’s fine to use students as long as the students are up front about being paid hacks. College confidential in particular has a great process for registering as a counselor. At the same time, I love the imagery of a covert group trying to seed just the “message” into these venues, functioning a lot like the current bad guys on “24”. Cool…and a little evil.

  2. It appears that great minds think alike. Here is something that I just posted on CC regarding colleges using social networking sites in the admissions process:

    Once colleges start moving outside objective information to subjective information (e.g. random, anonymous, and unsubstantiated comments, pictures) they start to put themselves on a slippery slope. It is now so easy for anyone to anonymously defame anyone on various forums, bulletin boards, discussion groups, etc. Knowing the competition within high schools for limited and coveted college spots, you could see how this could be turned into a vindictive and malicious game for unscrupulous parents and students. You have seen what some mothers have done to get their daughters on the cheerleading squad and can imagine the free-for-all that can occur if colleges start trolling the internet for dirt on students. The colleges have enough real data from GPA’s, SAT’s, interviews, and recommendations that I would hope that they would not stoop to the level of anonymous and unsubstantiated gossip. My sense and hope is that any self-respecting admissions director would not bring college admissions down to this level. The internet is now full of so much garbage and to use it for the purpose of making life changing decisons is just wrong. Just go on to some of the Yahoo business forums and you can see what anonymous, disgruntled employees say about their boss or CEO. For colleges to actually start using this information only fosters more shameful behavior. If such practice exists in college admissions it needs to stop.

    Some final thoughts: Anyone can easily create a facebook page in someone else’s name. There are people that share the same name. A lot of what is posted on Facebook is jokes and pranks. Are the colleges in a position to sort out the real from the unreal, the truth from the fiction? What type of liability do they face if they rely upon unsubstantiated information from unverified sources? I’m sure the attorneys would be lining up if it could be proven that such an internet review was standard practice at a college. All it takes is one admissions officer to leave and blow the whistle.

    Personally, I am highly disturbed that anyone could be affected in such an important outcome as college admissions. The stuff that exists on the internet is 10 levels below the National Enquirer.

    Colleges need to rise above the trash and be exposed for utilizing trash in such an important decision.
    I am pleased to learm GMU has taken the high ground on this matter and would encourage other institutions to do the same.

  3. There was a lot of discussion around this topic at PCACAC and the “new to tech”, veterans, and vendors all had strong opinions. Dean Flagel, I appreciate two points I heard you make during the conference.

    1) None of these technologies/web sites are a strategy, but each one can play an important role.

    2) The position that it sounds like GMU has taken is one which I advocate as well…follow a try, measure, and adjust strategy when keeping up with student’s expectations online. Schools should not be afriad to try new web sites or technology. It does not have to be perfect out of the gate. Measure the results and then adjust or discontinue as necessary.

    Finally, I’d like to see more discussion around using technology (both third party and on school’s admissions web sites) to build relationships with prospective students throughout the enrollment process, not only in the recruiting phase. There is a lot of potential for improved yield if it is done right, and a lot of opportunity for watsed outreach time and dollars if done poorly.

    • for the students in the audience (and parents) not in the admissions industry – “yield” is the term we use to refer to getting admitted students to confirm your enrollment (which you should do at Mason by TOMORROW!!!). I think Mason is among many schools fairly successful at the relationship building in technology for admitted students, using Facebook groups and the like…but wait’ll you see what I do next! No no – you’ll just have to be patient. And, in fairness, it wasn’t my idea (Kevin, Mason’s undergraduate director gets the nod for the genius on this one) and it won’t be my actual work (the evil geniuses at will do the programming). Even so, I’m prett damn excited about it. More when I already have it up and running 😀

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