• September 18, 2014

Company Created Official-Looking 'Class of 2013' Facebook Groups for Hundreds of Colleges

Updated 5:59 p.m.

Anyone can create a Facebook group and make it appear to be something it’s not.

Brad J. Ward reminded admissions officials about that simple fact on Thursday after examining hundreds of “Class of 2013” groups that have popped up on the popular social-networking site. Typically, students who plan to enroll at a particular college create such groups to start communicating with their future classmates. Some colleges establish the groups or encourage admitted students to do so.

But Mr. Ward, coordinator for electronic communication in Butler University’s admissions office, found that dozens of the 2013 Facebook groups, complete with college logos, had been created — or were being maintained — by the same handful of people, none of whom were students. So who were they?

On his blog, SquaredPeg.com, Mr. Ward wrote early this morning that, with the help of other admissions officials, he had traced several of the names to College Prowler, a Pittsburgh company that publishes student-written guidebooks about colleges and universities.

Later today, Luke Skurman, College Prowler’s chief executive, confirmed in a message on Mr. Ward’s blog that his company had been “directly or indirectly involved” in creating the 2013 groups. “The original purpose was to use these groups as a way to inform students that they can access a free guide about their new college on our site,” he wrote. “No employee or anyone else associated with College Prowler has used these groups to send out messages or wall posts.”

Yet Mr. Skurman also wrote that he learned “about an hour ago” that College Prowler had been working with another group “that may have been using fake aliases to create these groups.” In an interview with The Chronicle this afternoon, Mr. Skurman identified that group as Match U, a social-networking tool that’s in development. The group, which had also begun creating 2013 groups representing various colleges, reached an agreement with College Prowler: “They granted us some administrative access to their groups, and we granted them some administrative access,” said Mr. Skurman.

This afternoon, Mr. Skurman posted a list of names “associated with” College Prowler on Mr. Ward’s site, and announced that College Prowler had cut ties with all of the 2013 groups. “It was clearly over the line, and we should have checked ourselves earlier,” Mr. Skurman told The Chronicle. “We saw so many other companies doing this, and it seemed it was kind of the Wild West, and that this was an innovative approach.”

As word of what one admission dean has dubbed “Facebookgate” first spread yesterday, some college officials speculated that College Prowler had set out to “colonize” Facebook groups for marketing purposes. Mr. Ward wrote on his blog that he had uncovered “an inside ring with a common purpose.”

“Think of the data collection,” he wrote. “The opportunities down the road to push affiliate links. The opportunity to appear to be an ‘Admin’ of Your School Class of 2013. The chance to message alumni down the road. The list of possibilities goes on and on and on.” Mr. Ward added that he planned to create an official Butler Class of 2013 group, promote it to students, and warn them that other groups were “potential spam.”

In an interview late this afternoon, Mr. Ward said one of his concerns was that the company was engaged in data mining. Although one members of a particular Facebook group cannot see the personal details of another’s profile without being his or her Facebook “friend,” Mr. Ward said that students tend to “friend” everyone in a particular group. “Some freshmen ‘friend’ everyone in their class,” he said.

Michelle Lynch Clevenger, director of recruitment at Winthrop University, in South Carolina, said the concerned admissions professionals were “looking out for students not to get spammed and solicited and taken advantage of.”

Ms. Clevenger first contacted Mr. Ward several weeks ago, after seeing a 2013 group for her institution pop up on Facebook. Winthrop does not create groups for incoming freshmen, but it monitors those that do form to make sure the students do not spread incorrect information.

Ms. Clevenger was suspicious because the 2013 page contained names she did not recognize, and many were from out of state (80 percent of Winthrop students come from South Carolina). So she called Mr. Ward, known as a social-networking guru in the field. Mr. Ward later found a Butler group that listed the same creator — Patrick Kelly — as the Winthrop group did. Neither institution had a record of an applicant with that name.

Some recruitment experts were concerned about how admissions officials, who were already wary of Facebook, might respond to the news. “Colleges and universities continue to struggle to make sense of social networking, and this is an illustration of how you need to be careful about how you manage your presence on the Web,” said Michael Stoner, president of mstoner, a marketing firm that specializes in Web development, and whose clients include higher-education institutions.

“One of the lessons here is that colleges and universities need to be a part of these networks,” he said, “but you can’t take for granted that everything going on there is beneficial.” —Eric Hoover and Beckie Supiano

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