General F*Ups and College Admissions: Harvard Admissions and Social Media

Harvard YardSnapshot: This case probes the ethical challenges that admissions officers at elite schools face in the age of social media. Should all of a young person's online history be open for scrutiny? How should admissions officers balance the recognition that students are in the process of development against the need to set clear standards for acceptable behavior?


Case Description: In April 2017, Harvard College admissions officers moved to revoke admissions offers from a group of at least 10 admitted students. Tipsters had alerted the admissions officers to a private Facebook group - started as an offshoot of the official Harvard Class of 2021 group - where students shared offensive memes that ranged from anti-semitic jokes to jokes about bestiality and pedophilia. Although admissions officers try to view disciplinary infractions through a developmental lens, exactly what sort of behavior puts an application in jeopardy is unclear. Moreover given the sheer volume of applications received by a school like Harvard, admissions officers simply lack the time to go over the online histories of all applicants. Instead, they are typically reactive, acting on tips sent to the admissions office by concerned individuals.

General F***ups and College Admissions probes the ethical challenges admissions officers are forced to grapple with in the age of social media. How should developmental considerations influence admissions decisions? Should the fact that information about students' online presence is only made available for some students matter in making admissions decisions? As more and more of the interactions among young people take place online, admissions officers will be increasingly forced to grapple with dilemmas just like these.

See also: Discipline, Policy