The Marriage of Colleges and Social Media Influencers Is Bad News

Last week a lot of people’s cages were rattled when it was revealed dozens of the nation’s wealthiest individuals had paid outrageous sums to consultants and others who would help their kids get into the most elite colleges and universities around. The situation starkly revealed the disconnect between the ideal – that an education is open to anyone based on merit – and the reality, that those with privilege have unique advantages not available to the common citizenry.

It shouldn’t have been that surprising. Earlier this year there was a report that part of the education gap between white and black students is due to the lack of black teachers in lower grades. The top 20 colleges in the country receive over one-quarter of private donations despite educating less than two percent of students. The system is skewed in favor of the wealthy and has been for a good long while.

One aspect of the story that got some new attention is how colleges are on some level working with social media influencers such as one of the young women caught up in the scandal as part of their marketing and recruitment. The schools may not actually enlist the paid services of these influencers, but having one around who’s using the campus and facilities as background for their #sponcon certainly isn’t a bad thing. Other brands are already targeting influencers at college as a way to bring their message to the similarly-aged audience they have.

While there’s some disagreement that colleges are actually considering whether an applicant is an online influencer with a massive following, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility. A study last year showed one third of college admissions officers actually reviewed the social media posts of those applying to the school while two thirds feel doing so would be justified.
The reasons cited include monitoring to make sure kids weren’t using racist language online or engaging in behavior that could be unethical or otherwise unacceptable, something that would reflect poorly on the school if anyone made the connection.

If colleges are on some level showing preferential treatment to those who have built up influential online profiles and personas, it signals a troubling future not just when considering equal access to education but equal consideration for future employment as well.

70 percent of hiring managers already report researching the social media profile and posts of those who have applied for work at a company and almost half say they monitor what current employees are doing online. The emphasis is usually on how those posts and profiles might be used by current or potential employers to discipline or even fire someone, but there’s the converse in that they are looking for credentials and endorsements along with industry-specific content.

Notably, 18 percent of respondents said they were specifically looking for whether or not the individual had a large social media following.

It’s not that far-fetched to think that someone’s social media influence and the size of their follower network will come to be a bigger factor when it comes to who does and doesn’t get hired. After all, more and more companies are engaging in influencer marketing campaigns to the extent some agencies are bringing those influencers in-house to gain unfettered access to their creativity. Macy’s and other retailers are even looking within their own ranks for those with sizable social networks to become brand ambassadors as a way to avoid becoming entangled with outside influencers who may be problematic in some way.

In fact it’s a road we’ve been down, at least partly, before. Back in the early years of the decade there was a substantial conversation around how someone’s Klout score – an imperfect (at best) measure of someone’s expertise or influence on a topic – might be used in the hiring process. There were reports that people were being rejected for jobs because their Klout score was too low while others were more seriously considered because of a high score, one that likely didn’t meaningfully reflect reality. Professors were even preparing students to keep their scores up to increase their odds of finding work.

[In brief, my problems with Klout are centered around how it mistook engagement for expertise. Someone who was Retweeted a lot or who got a lot of Facebook comments was seen as more of an expert on a topic than someone who didn’t. You could have two decades of experience and multiple degrees on a subject but if you got fewer replies on Twitter than someone who knows how to scratch itching ears you were out of luck.]

The problems with using social media influence as a measure of who does or doesn’t get hired is troubling enough that listing all the issues inherent in the idea would take days. Such status is akin to a form of professional accreditation or certification, the attainment of which can cost money and necessitate time many don’t have. Such status is indicative of class and privilege itself, with only those who can afford to achieve it then being seen as qualified as moving into higher-paying jobs. It’s another way systems supposedly based on merit are actually skewed in favor of those with resources.

Not everyone can be an official, recognized (and paid) influencer on social media. The bar for achieving that level shifts constantly as platforms come in and out of style. Someone who’s devoted significant attention to LinkedIn may find themselves shut out of work when it’s not what a company is looking for, or when attention shifts to some other network. Such criteria are just as discriminatory as anything else that’s less about the quality of the work and more about the show someone is capable of putting on. And it discounts the efforts of someone who enters an agency at a lower level and finds they are there to support the profile of a “Big Name” instead of building up their own industry reputation.

What happens in what sector, such as education, will impact another. If colleges go deeper into actively choosing new students based on the size and influence of their social networks that will bleed into the job market, even if there’s no distinct intent to do so. It’s something schools should consider when making their choices.