Duke University has Sent You a Friend Request?!

Posted By: Ryan Bethell

facebookRecent surveys from U.S.News suggest that Universities are increasingly looking at Facebook, Linkden, and other social network profiles to help make admissions decisions. Using Facebook in admissions criteria may implicate certain obvious (government actors accessing private information) and non-obvious (admissions officers making fun of applicant essay topics online) privacy concerns, though these issues have been discussed at length elsewhere. A novel question exists, however, of whether or not a public University’s using Facebook to gain information about its applicants creates conflict between new laws banning race conscious admissions in public Universities. Assuming such bans survive the Supreme Court’s scrutiny, will examining a student’s Facebook page, and subsequently discovering their race, violate these statutes? If not, will universities be able to use Facebook to actuate their interest in preserving a diverse learning environment without directly “asking” about race?

On October 15th, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments on whether Michigan voters’ decision to ban race conscious college admission through a constitutional amendment is itself discrimination, and therefore unconstitutional under of the Fourteenth Amendment in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

The ban on color conscious admissions, which Michigan voters passed in 2006, was partially motivated to counteract the Supreme Court’s ruling in Grutter, which upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s race conscious admissions policy. In Grutter, the Supreme Court found public university admissions officers can view race as one admissions factor, among others, though quotas are impermissible. In order to use race as an admissions standard, however, they must show a governmental interest in doing so. Specifically, the court held that the 14th Amendment “does not prohibit the law school’s narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The decision in Grutter crafted a narrow set of circumstances in which a University may consider race in their application decision, but in doing so, left open the question how much diversity was enough to achieve the states interest in a diverse learning environment.

The Court returned to the topic of race conscious college admissions in October of 2012 in Fisher v. University of Texas. In Fisher, the University of Texas already had protocols in place that helped assure a diverse student body. Texas’ SB 175 ensures that every student that graduates in the top 10% of a Texas high school is automatically admitted to the University of Texas. Theoretically, because this provision applies equally to high schools with high minority representation and to high schools that are predominantly white, minority groups will be sufficiently represented in the pool of automatic admissions. Accordingly, the court remanded to the lower court to apply the standard set forth in Bakke and Grutter, holding that the University of Texas’s use of race must be narrowly tailored to the goal of promoting a diverse learning environment.

As the arguments over the extent to which universities can use race as an admissions criteria wages on, several states have elected to outright ban race conscious admission policies. In addition to Michigan, California, Arizona, Washington, Oklahoma, and Nebraska have already adopted statues that ban race conscious admissions procedures in public schools.

As social media increasingly becomes a part of the admission decisions, is there is little doubt that race will ultimately be known by those reviewing the applications. Even if they adopt a “color blind” policy, evaluators run the risk of subconscious bias– since they will know the race of the applicants due to Facebook. This may lead to subconscious “statistical” racism, which could negatively impact minority groups. Alternatively, the Universities, many of whom are fighting in favor of affirmative action in college admissions, may have a new way to actuate their goals. Without ever stating a “policy,” admissions personnel may use race information on Facebook to favor minority groups, in actuation of their “governmental interest in preserving a diverse learning environment.” Ultimately, a large sample statistical field experiment would be able to tease out some conclusions about whether or not (and how) using Facebook effects admissions of minority groups.

Having worked for the admissions office a highly competitive school, I know that students will go to great lengths to get into their top choice school. Some studies show students are already anticipating colleges looking at their Facebook profiles, and creating public “ideal profiles” for the colleges to find, while engaging in traditional social functions on Tumbler and Instagram. It’s not too hard to envision a future when students start sending false signals on about their race on Facebook pages.


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