Pros and cons of applying to college electronically

You're running late, trying to make the deadline for applying to college. No problem. Just apply online. Fill out the form on the computer, press the button, and bingo.

Sounds simple, and it's an option at 9 out of 10 colleges and universities, according to a national survey conducted last year.

Yet despite widespread availability, online applications are shunned by a surprising number of tech-savvy students. Many choose instead to fill out a paper application, dab it with Wite-Out to blot mistakes, and send it by mail - or courier, if they're late.

When it comes to applying to college online, ease of execution is often trumped by fears of the application getting lost in the electronic ether and never reaching the school. Students also worry about the privacy of their personal information. Or even that schools will not take electronic applications seriously.

Among high school students planning to attend four-year colleges, the percentage who applied to college online dipped to 34 percent this spring, from 38 percent two years ago, according to a not-yet-published survey.

That drop was within the survey's margin of error, so the results are "essentially flat - no change" after years of steady increases, says Richard Hesel, author of the study and a principal with Art & Science Group, a higher-education marketing and consulting firm in Baltimore.

He's not quite certain what accounts for the lack of growth. "Personal engagement in the process seems to be more important to students since 9/11," Mr. Hesel says. Even with campus webcams and virtual tours, the campus visit is still the biggest determining factor in terms of where people apply. It's been increasing in importance as technologies become more prevalent.

Another explanation, Hesel says, could be that "there's a certain percentage of students who just don't like filling out forms on a computer. To them, filling out a paper form has a certain appeal, perhaps, because it seems more personal."

Colleges can save time

After some initial foot-dragging, colleges have generally embraced the online application. Downloading students' information directly into databases promises to speed up the process and allow more accuracy than trying to read student handwriting and typing the information into a computer. It could cut costs and increase the amount of time available to review each application.

While he's hopeful about the potential of online applications, Michael Griffin, associate dean of admissions at the University of Denver, says the technology takes time to master. This is the second year his school has offered online applications, but the data still have to be painstakingly transferred into another database - there isn't any direct downloading yet.

The University of Denver has plenty of company. Three out of four colleges report doing the same thing with data, according to a survey of 1,600 institutions released earlier this year by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in Alexandria, Va.

About 53 percent of his school's early-action candidates this fall applied online, Mr. Griffins says.

"Certainly kids today are used to the technology, but when they hit the send button, they still question: Did [the school] actually get it?" he says. "Another thing we've found is that high school guidance counselors sometimes discourage applying online. Some aren't comfortable with the technology. But others feel they're losing some control if Billy or Suzy can apply online and they never know about it."

Convenient and cheap

One of the key advantages to applying online is convenience. Many colleges offer not only their own application, but a "common application" that is generic - making it easier for students to use the same information to apply to many schools. Another factor is that many colleges encourage online applications by not charging a fee.

In fact, that's part of the explanation for a rise in the number of schools students apply to. Today it's roughly eight to 10, compared with six to eight of years ago, says Judith Hingle, director professional development at NACAC.

"For this generation of students, the computer is their medium of communications," she says. "They won't write to ask for an application. They just go right to the website, get the application right there, and fill it out. The large majority then e-mail the information. They don't tend to write or pick up the phone anymore."

Ms. Hingle does notice, though, that many of the students who fill out forms online will then print them out and mail them in at the same time.

In a bid to dispel students' fears, more schools are offering instant confirmation that the application has been received.

Harriet Brand, a spokeswoman for Princeton Review, says students hold many misconceptions about applying online, including a mistaken belief that colleges still prefer hard copies over the electronic version.

Enough students are at ease, though, that the Princeton Review has seen robust growth in this area. The number of online applications submitted via its website rose to 387,000 last year from 29,000 in 1999.

Still, some technology radicals have softened. In June 2000, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon would soon accept only online applications. But a spokesman says that although the school prefers the electronic versions, it still receives, and welcomes, paper applications.

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