Seeking the perfect school

WANTED: small classes. urban setting. classy campus. Plug that into a college-search site and you might just find your match.

When it was finally Megan Anderson's turn to hunt for a college to attend, she had already heard all the horror stories from her older sister.

Zillions of brochures would pour in from every college on earth - which she must read. She would spend untold hours in her guidance counselor's office. Finally, she would have to fill out a slew of applications by hand. Oh, and the scholarship applications....

But that nightmare never materialized, and Megan had the last laugh, thanks to a bevy of new Internet college-search sites.

For Megan and a fast-growing number of computer-savvy high-schoolers, the traditional slog to pick one of 4,000 American colleges has become a breeze. About a dozen Web sites, many with trendy-sounding names like GoCollege, CollegeView, CollegeNet, or CollegeQuest offer search tools that in seconds can pull together a customized list of schools based on a student's taste and finances.

Of all areas of daily life the Internet is supposed to revolutionize, the college search is among the first to receive a direct hit. College catalogs are being pushed aside by megabytes of college data easily available to students in a fast, interactive way.

But high-school guidance counselors aren't sure about the high-tech approach. They worry about being cut out of the loop and say that "out of context" decisions may be made from raw data.

The arrival of Internet searches is "probably a mixed blessing," says Patrick O'Connor, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va.

To Bennett Greenspan, one of the Internet's new college brokers, the news is only good. He is chief executive officer of Houston-based GoCollege, a two-year-old online college-search site.

Just as a mortgage broker might scan for the best rates, GoCollege's college-search engine caters to students and parents who want the best possible deal on the best possible college.

Tell the screen about yourself

Simply plug your information into the GoCollege screen: Your best SAT score? Major? How much to spend on tuition? Type of school - public or private? Where do you live? Where do you want to go? Then click the "Go" button. Up pops a list of 25 or 30 schools - your list.

It doesn't stop there. Mr. Greenspan wants GoCollege to be a "one-stop shop" Web site. He wants students to visit again and again - first for a college search, later for online scholarship searches. Still later, they may fill out online college applications or send e-mail queries to schools.

"Of course, they can always find the same information in a book," Greenspan says. "But by scurrying around the Internet a little, they can quickly get the most current information available. I think this is going to become an indispensable tool."

Numbers tell the story. CollegeNet isn't close to being the largest such endeavor. Yet on a recent month it registered 10 million "hits," says Patricia Summers, CollegeNet's marketing director.

Student online searches for college information are growing "almost exponentially," says Richard Hesel, a principal at Art and Science Group, a Baltimore education marketer.

Yet so far, only a small portion of those searches are from sites like GoCollege or CollegeNet. That will grow as Internet access grows and word gets out, many say.

In a national survey, nearly 80 percent of "higher ability" students - defined as those with SAT scores of 1050 or more - used individual college home pages in their search, according to Mr. Hesel's company. About 23 percent of these students used the top college-search site - College Board Online.

Viewed from a different angle, the growth is dramatic, says James Murray, the director of application processing at State University of New York in Albany. He cites more than 720 applications to attend SUNY flowing in from CollegeNet alone.

"This year we're adding CollegeQuest," he says. "We have seven different [Web-based broker] services including our own. We're creating access."

Online applications to SUNY originating from college-search sites were only 1.4 percent of the total this year, Mr. Murray says. But the jump from 168 applications in 1995 to 3,238 this year is almost a 20-fold increase in three years, a trend he expects to continue.

Searcher beware

As with all information on the Internet, caution is advised. Experts warn students and colleges that they need to verify data spilling out of college-broker sites. A random search for Beloit College in Beloit, Wis., for example, yields four different enrollment numbers at four search sites, and two different tuition figures.

"The good side is that it gives students new avenues to explore and expand their knowledge base," Mr. O'Connor says. "Sometimes, though, the student doesn't come back and assess or evaluate that raw information with an objective source."

For Megan, her Internet search, combined with in-person visits to four colleges that interested her, was enough. When she was a junior in high school, she found CollegeNet after typing "college search" into an Internet search engine. It took one evening to get a list of 25 to 30 schools - a few days more to visit each school's Web site. A week or so later, she had a short-list of four favorites.

Megan applied online to Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksford in early 1997 - filling out just one application on the computer. She was accepted that fall "early decision" before many of her friends had started looking.

More than a thousand miles south in Siloam Springs, Ark., Brenda Duncan is pushing similar buttons.

A junior in high school, her goal is to be the first person in her family to attend college. And she's using the GoCollege search engine to help her locate the right school for her.

"I want a public college in a small community with low tuition," she says. "I'm sure I'll be using [the search sites] more. They've been really helpful as far as finding scholarships."

Karen Torgersen, director of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech is emphatic. Though online applications have "almost doubled the work load" in her office, she says it's worth it.

Students have come to expect such service, she explains, adding that searching and applying online are also extremely powerful marketing tools.

"Students are applying to Virginia Tech in part because of the ease and simplicity," she says. "The bottom line: We have to make sure we have all the popular alternatives covered."


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