College & Workforce Readiness

Yes, Colleges Can Rescind Admission Offers. Here’s What Educators Need to Know

By Catherine Gewertz — June 19, 2019 5 min read
Harvard College, part of the Harvard University campus pictured here, announced this week it would revoke an admission offer to a survivor of the Parkland high school massacre because of racist social media posts. The decision serves as a reminder to high school students that colleges can rescind their offers of admission if they learn of behavior that calls into question a student’s character or integrity.

It’s happening again: A high-profile college accepts a student and then withdraws its offer of admission because it learns the student has done, well, bad stuff.

You probably heard about the most recent case: Harvard College rescinded its admission offer to Kyle Kashuv, a Parkland school shooting survivor and gun-rights activist, after learning he had used racial slurs in a Google document two years prior. And in 2017, Harvard revoked 10 students’ admissions offers because they’d used offensive memes in a private Facebook group.

Here’s what you need to know about the revocation of college admissions offers, so you can help students avoid it, or support them if it does happen.

So how frequently do colleges actually rescind admission offers?

Not often, officials say, but it’s tough to find recent data to back that up. The National Association for College Admission Counseling stopped surveying its members on this question in 2009, but back then, 22 percent of colleges reported that they had revoked an admission offer that year. Two-thirds of those revocations were because of poor grades in students’ senior year. One-third of the colleges cited disciplinary issues, and 3 in 10 revoked offers because of false information on applications.

And they really can take back an offer because of something a student said online?

Yes, they can. Most colleges have policies that protect their right to withdraw offers of admission if they learn of behavior that calls into question the student’s character or integrity. Posts on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or in messaging apps like Snapchat or Kik, can provide colleges with evidence of behavior that conflicts with their student codes of conduct.

“Many students don’t think of what they say or do in electronic forums as public, but indeed it is,” said Stefanie Niles, the president of NACAC. “They forget how accessible that information is to a wider population.”

Do colleges really hunt around online for information about students?

Yes, but to varying degrees. Most universities don’t have the time or resources to play detective this way. But some do check students’ social media feeds. They can also take action based on tips they receive.

In a survey last year by Kaplan Test Prep, 29 percent of admissions officers said they check students’ social media when evaluating their applications. But 68 percent said that checking social media is “fair game” in admissions.

The cases I hear about in the news involve places like Harvard. Is it just the elite schools that revoke admissions offers?

No. Most institutions have long-standing policies that protect their right to withdraw admissions offers for various reasons, including a big drop in academic performance after students are accepted, or lying on their applications.

Universities use these policies with students already on campus, too. Some of the universities implicated in the recent “Varsity Blues” admissions scandal, for instance, have expelled students who got in by cheating on the ACT or SAT, or under the false pretense that they were recruited athletes.

Institutions’ policies about revoking admissions offers are often outlined in their letters of admission, though students might be so blinded by joy reading those letters that they don’t absorb that fine print.

Colleges also outline their policies on their websites. And you know those Facebook groups where admitted students can share their excitement and meet their fellow students? Those can also carry reminders that bad decisions could cost them their cherished spot. The admitted-students Facebook group for Harvard’s class of 2021 says: “As a reminder, Harvard College reserves the right to withdraw an offer of admission under various conditions including if an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character.”

What should teachers, counselors, and principals do to help students avoid having their offers revoked?

Talk early and often. Be sure to let students and families know, clearly and repeatedly, what colleges’ expectations are, Niles said.

School staff members need to help students, and their parents, “understand from the get-go that what students say and do matters, whether they say it verbally, or type it into their phones. Even as 16 year-olds, they can and will be held accountable for actions that may seem frivolous at the time,” Niles said.

Enlist parents. Brandon Townsend, the director of college counseling at Appoquinimink High School in Middletown, Del., said he encourages parents to monitor their teenagers’ online activity, to the extent they can. This can be tough, since many students won’t allow their parents to “friend” them on Facebook or follow them on Instagram. But Townsend encourages parents to at least discuss the risks of online posting with their children.

Make it real. Real-life stories can help awaken students to the risk of posting inappropriate things online, Townsend said. When he advises students, he takes headlines from the news to counter the sense of invincibility common to adolescents. “They need to see that this stuff does happen to people their age, and it could happen to them,” Townsend said.

What should educators do if one of their students does have an offer of admission rescinded?

Support the student in reaching out to the university immediately. Louis Hirsch, a retired admissions officer at the University of Delaware, said it’s standard practice for institutions to allow students to respond to the allegations underlying their decisions to revoke admission.

Go to bat for the student if the circumstances warrant it. If a student has lost his spot because his grades plummeted during his senior year, he deserves the chance to explain, said Sally Rubenstone, a former admissions officer at Smith College who writes the “Ask the Dean” column for College Confidential, a popular discussion portal for college-applying students.

Maybe he suffered a death in his family, and is getting back on track with extra academic help, she said. If educators support him in explaining and documenting these events, his college could reconsider its decision, she said.

Teachers and counselors also can consider advocating for a student who’s lost her spot because of bad behavior, if they feel it was “aberrant, or out of character,” Rubenstone said.

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