March 2007 Issue
Virtual College Search
The Internet can be a good resource, but it has limitations.
Eighteen-year-old Jenni Kusma is a senior at New Albany High School. Like most of her peers who plan to attend college, she's making good use of the Internet to aid in her search for the right school. "First I met with the college counselor, and he gave me a list of schools that he thought would fit my interests and needs," says Kusma. "Then I went to the schools' Web sites, and I used them to narrow down the list."
After plenty of online research, Kusma was able to decide which schools to visit.
According to Jeff Stahlman, college counselor at New Albany High School, Kusma is approaching her search the right way. "The Internet is a great tool, but if that's all you do and rely on it, you are really missing the boat," he says. "The Internet should not be a replacement for other things." When searching for the right college or university, experts agree that there is no substitute for the college visit. It gives students an opportunity to get a feel for the campus and what it has to offer.
Nevertheless, this is a generation that grew up with the Internet. Kusma is quick to note that it's used heavily by her peers. "It's definitely a comfort thing and a convenience thing," she says. "We spend a ton of time on the computer. You can search around and look at schools and you can find everything and more than you would want to know."
Colleges and universities know that; consequently, they are focusing much of their time, effort and resources on Web sites that will attract students. Still, college experts agree that while there are some definite advantages to using the Internet when searching for the right school, it has limitations.
A big plus for the Web is that students have around-the-clock access. That gives them a certain degree of privacy, with no obligation to take the next step. "The Internet allows students to search for a college on their own time and terms, with a certain level of anonymity to begin the process and investigate," says Candace Boeninger, assistant director for communications and technical operations at Ohio University in Athens. "They can read and learn about universities and experience them to some extent without having to make a major commitment of time, resources or money." Based on what they find, they can then narrow their list of schools to a manageable number.
Another advantage is that the Internet lets everybody in the family obtain the same information at the same time, unlike a phone conversation, for example. The Internet conveys a wealth of information that students can share with their parents, or vice versa. Best of all, it provides quick and easy access to that information. For example, webinars (Web-based seminars) and podcasts are convenient ways to access information. Students can download a podcast and listen to it on their iPod when they have the time.
The Internet search makes it possible for students to learn about educational institutions they may not have encountered otherwise. For the schools, that means more inquiries from beyond the normal recruiting areas. At the same time, students are looking at schools that are much farther away than what they might have considered.
"Many students are finding more of the private colleges when they put in specific searches," says Stacey Dorr, director of public relations for the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Ohio. They can be specific with their searches by entering criteria that will help them make a selection. For instance, the student might indicate that she is looking for a school that has fewer than 5,000 students and offers engineering, football and Habitat for Humanity. The result is that students arrive on campus better prepared for the campus visit. "The realm of the campus visits has changed because of this," says Dorr. "By the time the student comes for a visit, she is considering it as an option; therefore, students expect more from the campus visit." Consequently, campuses must be better prepared as well.
"The Internet is the first point of contact for students, so colleges are putting more money and resources and staff into marketing their campus via the Internet," says Dorr. "They need that strong presence to be competitive."
Ashland University is one of many Ohio campuses working hard to be competitive via the Internet. "Our Web site is geared to the 15- to 20-year-olds," says Carl Gerbasi, vice president of enrollment management. "What's really exciting is the fact that we can get into every student's home with little effort." And it seems to be working, since the college now has more students visiting its campus than ever before. Ashland's Web site lets students experience a virtual tour of the campus, a feature that allows them to "walk" around a 3-D replica of the campus, enter buildings and even talk with other people in an instant-messaging-like chat format. If they see a person wearing a purple sweater with the letter "A" on it, they can immediately ask that person a question. "Students really enjoy that interaction," says Gerbasi. "It gives them so much more to look at before they get to campus."
Words of Caution
The Internet is a good place to start the college search, but it shouldn't be the only method. "Internet searches can never really help students assess quality, reputation and outcome," says Dorr. "They never will be able to talk with individual staff members unless they make contact." That's why the college visit is so critical. "The best way to know whether a campus is right for you is still going to be the campus visit," says Boeninger. "What you lose with the Web is the ability to follow up with additional questions instantly." Even a virtual tour is not really specific to a particular student's needs and interests.
Gerbasi is quick to point out that some students will eliminate a college based on cost before they explore any financial-aid options at that institution. "They need to see what opportunities are available, since, in reality, most students are not paying that price," says Gerbasi. Exploring individual methods of making college affordable is best done with members of the school's staff.
Dorr points to other reasons why students may prematurely eliminate a college. For example, if an online search reveals a college doesn't offer their program or major, they may stop considering that school - despite the fact that many students change majors at least once in their college careers.
"The drawback [to the Internet] is that you don't have that face time with these kids where you can sit down and ask them what they would really like to do and help them understand that they could do some things in the institution that would help them get to that profession," says Gerbasi.
There's the danger that students will eliminate a school based on its Web site, and if that's the case, they miss out on that face-to-face contact with professionals who can help them.
While it's true that a school's Web site offers quick and easy access to a wealth of information, it can be overwhelming. That's why there are other resources that students can use to help them navigate the process, starting with high school guidance counselors. Kusma realized this when she worked with her college counselor to form a list of potential schools.
Experts agree that a healthy combination of Internet resources and input from the high school college counselor coupled with the campus visit is probably the best approach.
"My message would be that as long as students are relying both on the people and the Internet resources, it's OK," says Boeninger. "They need to put themselves out there in the face of people who can help them through the process. That would be any adult who can help them with the content on the Web so they are making intelligent decisions about the information they read."