Offensive social media posts should not block university admission

If a college education makes people more liberal, it is potentially the best remedy for bigotry, says Kate Eichhorn

February 13, 2020
Source: Tim Jonke/getty

In January, Kaplan, the US testing company, released the results of its college admissions officer survey. The survey found that the number of admissions officers who regularly visit applicants’ social media profiles jumped from 25 to 35 per cent over the past year.

This likely isn’t news to most applicants. Most already know that admissions officers are looking at what they say and do online. Thanks to several recent decisions at Harvard College, where applicants’ offers were rescinded after the discovery of sexist, racist or antisemitic social media posts, many teens also know that poor judgement online can come at a high price.

Of the admissions officers who looked at applicants’ social media profiles, 32 per cent told the Kaplan survey that they had a negative impact. A 2017 Inside Higher Education survey of admissions directors confirms that social media posts may lead to rejections; 14 per cent of private colleges surveyed said that a student had been rejected or had an offer revoked at least once in the previous two years as a result of something found online.

As well as being unsurprising, college admissions officers’ increasing tendency to emulate job recruiters by scrutinising applicants’ social media profiles isn’t even particularly contested: 68 per cent of college applicants believe it to be fair. But college admission isn’t identical to other forms of recruitment for one important reason. In most cases, the applicants are still minors. Without suggesting that minors should be able to say or do whatever they like, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes adolescents say and do stupid things but still turn out to be decent adults.

This is why many societies have special provisions for teens who mess up. Consider the common practice of treating young offenders differently from adult offenders. If legal systems make exceptions for teens who mess up, shouldn’t educational institutions do the same?

Perhaps a more compelling reason not to automatically screen out college applicants who are not yet enlightened rests on the fact that a college education may be the best remedy.

It is well documented that people who attend college are more liberal than their peers who don’t. In the US, for example, individuals with a college education are far more likely to vote Democrat than Republican. And the longer you spend in university, the more likely you are to lean left. A 2017 Pew Research Center study found that 63 per cent of US individuals with some postgraduate education were Democrat-leaning.

US colleges are so effective at turning out liberals that another recent PEW Research Center study found that Republicans’ trust in universities is plummeting. In 2018, only about half of Republican and Republican-leaning individuals said they had confidence in US colleges and professors to act in the best interest of the public, while 19 per cent had no confidence at all. In 2017, State Senator Mark Chelgren of Iowa even attempted to propose a legislative solution to the problem. While Chelgren’s bill was rejected, Senate File 288 would have made “political parity” among professors the law.

The idea that universities do at least one thing particularly well – that is, turn normal kids into radical lefties – isn’t new. During the McCarthy era, many US universities even required staff to take “loyalty oaths” to help weed out communists. But if college campuses have long functioned as indoctrination camps for the left, why deny teenage bigots a chance to come study for four years?

To be clear, I don’t pose this provocative question because I think that anyone should be able to say and do whatever they like on campus. (I’m likely the living embodiment of the type of professor on whom Senator Chelgren wants to place a quota.) My point is that a dose of liberalism might make people who have previously said or done offensive things less likely to do so again.

The four-year period following high school, when many people move away from home and start to question the beliefs and assumptions with which they grew up, is a critical time. This may hold particularly true for students from rural or isolated communities, which still tend to be more conservative. It also holds true for students from conservative religious communities. Not everyone rejects their core beliefs, assumptions and values during college. Most people do graduate with somewhat different perspectives from when they arrived.

The desirability of creating discrimination-free campuses isn’t in question here. I would never permit a student to make a discriminatory remark in my classroom. But denying students who have done so in the past the opportunity to engage in a critical exploration of power and difference (as a cultural studies professor, this is what I promote in my classes) seems counterintuitive.

It fails to acknowledge that adolescents are still works in progress. It also fails to recognise that, as educators, our mandate should never be to only teach to the converted.

Kate Eichhorn is associate professor and director of culture and media studies at The New School in New York City.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Offensive social media posts should not be a bar to university admission

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Reader's comments (1)

"I would never permit a student to make a discriminatory remark in my classroom." it would read better with "unchallenged" at the end. Who wants undiscriminating graduates?

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