Colleges Use Facebook to Recruit Students

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Laura Harrison always knew she wanted to go to Brigham Young University. The 17-year-old from El Dorado Hills, Calif., calls the Utah school her "one and only" and only bothered to apply to one back-up college.

With her heart set on the university, Harrison began using Facebook to connect with the staff.

"I pretty much stalked the BYU admissions page," she said. "It got to a point that I was posting on their wall on a weekly basis."

Harrison asked questions about the university and the application process through the BYU admission office's Facebook page, a site designed to recruit and inform prospective students.

While Brigham Young holds a particular appeal to its applicants -- its Latter-day Saints affiliation -- it does fit into a broad trend across college and university campuses of all affiliations, shapes and sizes: Where academic institutions may have once dismissed social media interaction, many are now embracing it.

According to a recent Kaplan survey of college admissions officers, 82 percent of American universities have set up Facebook pages to communicate with prospective students during the admissions process.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em

"College-aged kids use social networking a lot," said Jeff Olson, Kaplan's vice president of research. "A majority use it every day. Now colleges are recognizing what a powerful tool it can be."

Olson said that over the past few years, attitudes toward colleges using social media have changed. Initially, people saw universities engaging with prospective students over sites like Facebook as a negative interaction, he said.

"There was this 'Oh, no!' reaction at first," he said. "But as social networking becomes more popular, people are warming up to the idea."

A lot of the fear stemmed from the belief that colleges would use information found on an applicant's Facebook profiles against them, he said.

"There's this urban legend that every college admissions officer checks every student's Facebook," Olson said. "Honestly, it doesn't happen that often, but that doesn't mean it can't happen."

Do College Admissions Officers Look At Facebook Profiles?

Kaplan's survey of college admissions officers suggests that about 10 percent of officers have checked an applicant's online profile. This figure has not changed since 2008, despite more colleges using social media to recruit students.

Olson remembers how one student posted comments on his Facebook, bragging about how he was "too good" for a certain university that accepted him. An admissions officer saw the comments and rescinded the school's invitation to enroll.

"With every post, you're leaving a digital paper trail," he said.

But Olson admits that cases in which students harm themselves using social media are "isolated."

"In the end, your Facebook is far less important than your transcripts," he said.

Waiving Rights Through 'Friend' Requests?

Portia Goodin, a high school senior from Carbondale, Ill., has had positive experiences communicating with her university of choice over social media. Next year, she'll attend Indiana University, and she's used the school's admissions Facebook page to meet other students and get information about student life.

While she doesn't believe that universities frequently use students' Facebook pages to make admissions decisions, she does think schools should be able to use such information if they want.

"If you're choosing to communicate with a college over Facebook, you've giving that school permission to judge you based on your online profile," Goodin said. "A friend request is kind of like a waiver."

This year, Boston University received nearly 42,000 freshman applications. With that many applications to review, checking the Facebook page of every potential student would be impossible, said Colin Riley, Boston University's spokesman.

"It would be too time-consuming," he said.

He said, however, that if there is a compelling reason to look into an applicant's online profile, admissions representatives may do so.

For example, if a student writes an essay about how they organized a charity event through Facebook, or maintained a school club's social media accounts, the admissions staff may look into the student's profile for support.

College Applicants 'Friend Request' Admissions Officers

"Facebook can be a supplement to the student's application, but it's not going to be the determining factor in admissions," Riley said.

Above all else, he said, a student's transcripts, recommendations and essays decide if he or she will be admitted.

"We have a very experienced admissions staff," he said. "They know what to look for and have a pretty good read on a student based on their application alone. They don't need diversions like Facebook to help them decide."

According to a recent Kaplan survey, 80 percent of admissions officers reported receiving a friend request on Facebook in 2010.

Admissions officers around the country are using their own Facebook accounts to communicate with students. Evan Sprinkle, assistant director for admissions at Queens University of Charlotte, a small, private college in North Carolina, is one.

'No Judgments'

Sprinkle accepts any friend requests from prospective students. He even sends out his own friend requests to potential students that he's met, and to date, no one has turned his offer down.

He does have one rule when using social media like Facebook to interact with students: no judgment.

"I try my hardest, as does everyone else here at Queens, to make sure we are not using things like Facebook to make judgments about students' futures," he said. "We have so many more important things to consider than what's on someone's personal profile."

Sprinkle also manages the university's general Facebook account. He said if a student decides to connect with the school's page, privacy settings are still intact on the student's account, and the school can see no more than what a stranger would see.

This is opposed to when a student "friends" an individual person, such as a specific admissions officer, when the friendship normally means the officer would be able to view the student's full profile.

Mallory Murray, chief officer of marketing and design at Northwest Missouri State University, said her school's use of Facebook has been beneficial to students and administrators alike.

Using Facebook To Update College Applicants

"Students pay more attention to the Facebook messages we send out than our general emails," she said. "They're on it anyway, so it's just convenient for them."

Murray said the university's page is used to update students on all parts of the university, from housing application deadlines to information about course registration.

"Were getting back to the roots of what Facebook is," she said. "It's a line of communication."

Olson predicts that as social media becomes more popular, the practice of colleges using Facebook and similar sites will become even more common.

Such technology can be a great way for students to get information, he said, but he does warn students to be careful when using it.

Even with various options for privacy setting, students should use good judgment when interacting on Facebook with schools. "Applicants who do reach out to universities should know the implications," Olson said. "It means that you're putting yourself in a kind of virtual fishbowl."

For Laura Harrison, the potential risk of connecting with her college of choice on Facebook paid off.

In February, she was accepted to Brigham Young University. She plans on studying athletic training in hopes of working for a professional sports team one day.

On the same BYU page that she used to ask questions while she was applying, Harrison met with the girls she'll be rooming with next year.

"Facebook just kind of made everything easier," she said. "It's this way of communicating that's always on." contributor Meg Wagner is a member of the ABC News on Campus program.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 80 percent of college applicants friend requested an admissions officer. In 2010, 80 percent of admissions officers reported receiving a friend request on Facebook.