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Colleges Worried about Social Media's Impact on Privacy

Colleges Worried about Social Media's Impact on Privacy

The Baltimore Sun

September 30, 2009

Sep. 30—The newly admitted Johns Hopkins freshman discovered that he was the only member of this year’s class from Arkansas. So he joined the university’s Facebook site for recently enrolled students, where he mentioned often that he loves sweet tea. By the time he reached campus in late August, he had a first-night sipping date with three fellow tea lovers.

For admissions counselor Daniel Creasy, that story sums up how social media have changed the way colleges recruit, enroll and orient new students.

“Before they ever get to campus they can put their shoes into what it feels like to be a Hopkins student,” said Creasy, who steers the university’s use of Facebook, Twitter and other social media in admissions. “I hear from people all over campus that with every progressive year, the newest class is the most together and connected group that has ever showed up. They’ve already known each other for months.”

Facebook and other social media sites have invaded college admissions in a big way. But the great rush to use social media also raises questions about privacy and appropriate relations between administrators and students. Desperate applicants might attempt to improve their admissions chances by “friending” counselors. Conversely, counselors might use social media profiles to search for red flags on certain candidates or to assemble information for targeted recruiting pitches. In 2008, a company created false Facebook sites for many universities in hopes of grabbing personal information for marketing purposes.

Though counselors agree that such uses aren’t the norm, they don’t always agree on what is appropriate and what isn’t.

Admissions counselors see Facebook as a means to get information to prospective students but say it’s more powerful than a virtual brochure. By attracting applicants and admitted students to fan pages, colleges hope to give them an early push toward building communities. The logic is that if students make friends with fellow prospective students and get a sense of life on campus, they’re more likely to enroll when the time comes.

For a college trying to improve its image and woo top students from more established competitors, one-to-one contact over Facebook might be a smart risk. For a selective and long-established university such as Johns Hopkins, those contacts are more trouble than they’re worth.

Creasy said he receives personal friend requests from applicants but does not accept and instead nudges them to join the university’s fan page for prospective students. “My role is not to create a relationship at that stage,” he said. “There are definitely students trying to game the system, but I think it’s a small minority. Most of them are doing it as a way to get as much information as possible.”

Type in the name of a university on Facebook, and dozens of pages — some official, some not — will pop up. Most Maryland colleges maintain some presence on Facebook and Twitter. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is about to unveil a new social networking site for students that will incorporate their Facebook or MySpace profiles. At Stevenson University, Wild Stang, the school mascot, has its own Facebook page and serves as chief dispenser of information for prospective students.