It's that exciting time of year when blooms start bursting and a high school junior's thoughts turn to ... college.
Students pore over college guides, send away for literature, and drag Mom or Dad (or get dragged) to the all-important campus visit. Mark Kornblum, a high school junior in Natick, Mass., plans to do all that.
First, though, he went to the Internet.
"It's really very helpful in narrowing it down," Mark says, "because there are thousands of schools." In a single Saturday morning session online, he and his father trimmed his list of potential colleges to 30.
Increasingly, the Internet is joining other traditional methods as a tool for picking a school. Students can go online to search for, apply to, and even "visit" colleges. Schools, meanwhile, are using the technology to broaden their base of recruitment and polish their image.
Last month, for example, Albion College held its first virtual open house. Some 200 faculty, staff, and students gathered at the Albion, Mich., campus to support the online event. In three hours on a Sunday evening, the school got more than 500 visitors to its site and nearly 200 prospective students engaged in chat sessions where they asked about particular programs. That was more than had ever attended a real open house at Albion.
"In a matter of two or three years, you're going to find many colleges and universities engaging in this," predicts Peter Mitchell, Albion's president. "Imagine this: On a Sunday evening a student can 'attend' four different institutions in four different areas of the country."
Students are leading the online charge. When the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, surveyed its freshmen last fall, it found just under half used the World Wide Web to gather college information. That was up from 17.7 percent the previous year and 5 percent the year before that.
Tour and apply online
Since students are already tapping into online databases to make choices, colleges, and universities are rushing to catch up. Standard on campus Web sites today are online campus "tours" complete with photos, financial-aid tips, class schedules, and e-mail interaction with admissions officials. Many institutions are taking the next step with electronic applications.
One example is Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., which has just activated a sophisticated Web application that students can save online and continue working on at a later time.
The University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., has automated the process to the point that the application never gets printed out. The student sends it electronically, it gets stored electronically, and if the student does come to the university, it becomes the student's permanent computerized record.
Other colleges and universities are moving to standardize their application with Peterson's, a leading publisher of college guides in Princeton, N.J. The advantage: Students fill out the application once and send it to as many schools as they wish.
Nearly 1,000 schools - from Ivy League institutions to community colleges - have standardized their application on Peterson's Web site, triple the figure a year ago. Some 20,000 students have registered at the site to send 30,000 applications.
Colleges are already beginning to reap the benefits of this online explosion. Marist College, a small liberal-arts institution in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has seen the number of online inquires grow from some five a week two years ago to more than 50 a day. Nearly 30 percent of this year's applicants at the University of Dayton, Ohio, applied online.
And the Dayton school is not limiting its horizons. Its Web site provides information in Spanish, German, Mandarin Chinese, and Thai.
When the University of Virginia put its application on the Web, some administrators worried the process would become too easy and that the admissions office would be flooded with casual applicants. So far that hasn't happened. "The style of writing and the detail that is provided is comparable" with paper-based applications, says John Blackburn, dean of admissions.
The real test comes this fall when the Charlottesville, Va., school plans to allow electronic applications. (Currently, students must print out the Web application and send it in by mail.) Students who apply online still have to pay the application fee. A handful of schools now accept credit-card payment over the Internet.
Getting students to apply is half the battle. Getting them to accept is the other. This spring, the University of Buffalo in Buffalo, N.Y., is using a custom-designed Web program to enhance its recruitment.
Instead of its traditional one-size-fits-all open house in April, the university has created a Web site where students can design their own schedule for the event. They can pick from more than 200 areas of interest and decide whether they want to learn more about academics, campus life, financial aid, or technology on campus.
The arrival of the Internet is supplementing, not replacing, more traditional methods of college recruitment. For one thing, administrators want to ensure they continue to reach students who don't have access to computers. For another, the standard means still work.
"Almost everybody is on the Web," says Shelly Spiegel, president of Search Communications, a Philadelphia company specializing in college-recruitment videos. "But our video business has never been stronger."
How To Shop Colleges Online
Here are some free resources on the Web to help students and parents searching for the right school:
www.yahoo.com - Includes a quick college search program (click on education) that lets you sift out colleges and universities by major, size, location, and "wiredness" (for example, whether it has a campus-wide computer network and whether it's accessible from dorms). Also has links to other college resources.
* Kaplan's College Selector
www.csearch.kaplan.com - A more refined search of colleges based on students' preferences and interests. Includes information about each school and links to its Web site.
www.CollegeEdge.com - The Cadillac of college-database searches walks you through a detailed online interview. It takes 10 to 15 minutes to fill out, but the results are well worth the wait.
www.petersons.com - Once you've narrowed down the choices, this is the place to go to find out more about each school. Includes information about applying online and college financing. Also a nice place to start looking for professional, graduate, and summer programs.
www.fastweb.com - Need financial aid? This is the place to go. Its database contains information on 375,000 scholarships. Some scholarships allow students to apply directly online.
www.applytocollege.com - Use this resource to speed up the application process. Fill out one form and send it to any of the 1,000 schools that accept the standardized application. A third of the schools allow you to apply electronically.