SPRINGFIELD, MASS. — With his buddies Aaron and Kyle on either side, 17-year-old Jeremiah Johnson cruises down the aisles of this national college fair like a battleship with escorts, prowling for the right school.
At six-foot-five, 267 pounds, young Mr. Johnson is a physical presence, pushing against a tide of smaller students swirling in his wake as he moves from booth to booth.
Johnson, who plays tackle and puts the shot for Palmer (Mass.) High School, has two key requirements for a college: a football program (read, athletic scholarship) and an engineering program. There's a good chance he'll satisfy both with information gleaned from this fair, one of hundreds where American higher education hawks its wares.
College fairs are a staple of the spring college-admissions season - that semichaotic time of year when jumpy high school juniors, straggling seniors, and harried parents try to sift the 4,000-plus institutions of higher learning for the one perfect school.
The college hunt is increasingly supplemented online. And then there's the ubiquitous summer college visit. But the logical middle step between Internet search and college visit involves the personal touch of an admittedly brief one-on-one meeting between student and admissions rep at a college fair.
This, perhaps, explains college fairs' growing appeal since they got going in the early 1970s. This year, more than 425,000 students are expected to visit 440 fairs sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) based in Alexandria, Va., which hosts more college fairs than any other group. That's a 30 percent jump from attendance last year, officials say.
"You shop for a car on the Internet, but eventually you have to go in to the dealership to see if it's what you actually want," says Gregory Ferguson, director of national college fairs for NACAC. "I think parents and students look at searching on the Internet in the same manner. Face to face is important."
That's what's happening here in Springfield, Mass., as smiling representatives from more than 230 colleges and universities stand and deliver to Mr. Johnson's three quick questions: Engineering? Football? Football scholarships? With an affirmative to all three, Johnson pauses so the rep can slip a glossy brochure in the plastic bag he carries.
"I'm looking at places from Hawaii to Newfoundland, but I don't really care where I go - just so it's far away from here," the scholar-athlete says. "My only other requirement is, it's got to have rolling hills to look out at when I'm stuck in a cubicle doing my homework."
While Johnson's brute-force approach has been common for years, a growing number of students are arriving well-armed with information gleaned from the Internet and well-honed questions.
Crystal Czaja and her mom, Jeri Duda, for instance, are a savvy duo. Together they're on the hunt for a college or small university that offers English and theater. It can't be too close to home, Crystal says. So far, Beaver College in Glenside, Pa., and Niagara University in New York are standing out.
"I got information from 25 or 30 colleges in the mail," says the high school junior. "I checked on 10 of those over the Internet. I'm going to sort through the stuff I got today and do the same thing. Between the Web and [the college fair], I've got as much information as possible without actually visiting the school."
Still, the serendipity of walking these aisles has brought to her attention a school she never thought of: the University of Maine at Machias. "They were just really friendly, open - and really wanted to talk to me," Crystal explains.
"There's a lot of schools out there," says Ms. Duda. "We're trying really hard to match what she has to offer and they have to offer - and the financial aid."
Counselors say they've seen a rise in well-informed students like Crystal. "The kids are much better prepared," says Lynnette Fagnan, assistant director of admissions for Franklin Pierce College, in Rindge, N.H. "They say: 'What's your GPA and SAT range? The trend is definitely more-savvy consumers."
Chris Drouin, an admissions representative from State University of New York at New Paltz notes a change in the age-range of people attending the college fairs. "Five years ago we saw a lot of seniors," he says. "Now it's juniors and more and more sophomores. They understand that college is serious business and that it requires serious effort. So they're getting started sooner."
Nilda Montanez, Felicia Harris, and Shackiera Stanburg are high school freshmen. Together they have been picking up literature - though college is at least three years hence.
"The reason I'm looking now is, if I wait till 12th grade, I might be too late," Nilda says. "I want to go to college because then I'll be the first in my family to go. I'd rather be early than too late."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society