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Colleges turn to Web tools in hunt for '08 freshmen

Interactive sites aid recruiters, school-shoppers

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / January 7, 2008

Once dominated by glossy brochures, college fairs, and campus tours, the college admissions landscape is rapidly shifting toward online social media, as schools blanket the Internet with podcasts, blogs, and videos to recruit wired high school students.

With virtual campus tours, live chats with college students, professors, and admissions officers, and videos about campus life, colleges and universities are increasingly turning to interactive and multimedia technology as recruiting tactics to connect with prospective students who are far more likely to scroll down a Web page than thumb through a college viewbook.

Think of it as College Admissions 2.0, college officials and consultants say.

"Higher ed is really trying to embrace it on all fronts," said Nora Barnes, director of the Center for Marketing Research at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. "There's no doubt that's where their audience is."

In a study released this fall, UMass-Dartmouth researchers found that colleges are adopting Internet technologies such as podcasts, message boards, blogs, and social networks faster than Fortune 500 companies. The explosion of social media, higher education specialists say, is revolutionizing the college search process and the way colleges and prospective students interact.

Eager to prove their cutting-edge credentials to tech-savvy teenagers, colleges are accelerating efforts to bolster their online presence amid sharp competition for students and the proliferation of Web video and broadband Internet access.

"It's not about staying ahead of the students, it's about keeping up with them, but without seeming desperate to be hip," said David Hawkins, director of public policy and research for the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Prospective students can now instant-message recruiters and befriend them on Facebook, where scores of their future classmates are just a click away. They can take in classes on iTunes, tour campuses on YouTube, and create a profile on college websites to receive customized news a la Amazon.com.

At Colby College, which last year scrapped its traditional admissions brochure in favor of a student-run magazine, online visitors can view photo galleries and video podcasts with interviews with students and professors. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology features a range of student blogs to give prospective students an unvarnished look at the college, while Northeastern University posts video clips of campus life on iTunes. The College of the Holy Cross lets high school students create quick profiles as they would on Facebook to connect them with Holy Cross students who share their interests.

"This is their world," said Ann McDermott, Holy Cross director of admissions. "We want to make them feel at home."

Students say they are most drawn to features that give them a genuine glimpse of what the college is like and whether they'll like it. Colleen Curran, who went to high school outside Atlanta, chose to attend Holy Cross after months of reading a student blog.

"I was able to see firsthand what I'd be going through," said Curran, a freshman. "I felt extremely connected."

Ronné Patrick Turner, dean of admissions at Northeastern University, has received 6,000 hits on her blog since it launched in October. As more students fail to respond to direct mailings, the traditional mainstay of college admissions, nearly one in five students apply without having ever contacted the university, she said. The surge in so-called "stealth applicants," who mainly conduct their college search online, is spurring colleges to expand their e-marketing efforts.

"Students find us on the Internet," said Pam McCafferty, dean of enrollment management at Fitchburg State College, which in October launched a video campus tour featuring interviews with students and faculty that has drawn more than 21,000 visits. "It's the most consistent thing we see."

Some colleges, such as Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, have launched marketing videos on YouTube, where Dickinson's president even demonstrates how to tie a bowtie. Wellesley College's website provides a glimpse of the campus from a helicopter. Simmons College admissions counselors have Facebook and MySpace pages and regularly correspond with prospective students and applicants via instant- and text-message.

"This is how they prefer to communicate, and it gives us a chance to build a relationship with them," said Catherine Capolupo, Simmons' director of undergraduate admissions. "Technology is changing the admissions landscape very quickly."

Hundreds of colleges are recruiting through sites where high-school students post searchable personal profiles.

"Today's students live online, and have as long as they can remember," said Mick Hagen, president of Zinch.com, a leading new matching site. "All the mail and brochures are just ending up in the trash."

But Ryan Munce of the National Research Center for College and University Admissions said direct mailings are still effective, even though many students respond online instead of by postcard.

With today's students reflexively resistant to sales pitches, the marketing shift is as much about message as medium.

"This generation is very savvy to media," said Karen Giannino, of Colgate University admissions. "They see right through the posed photograph."

Such thinking spurred Colby College to launch insidecolby.com, a student-run site designed to give potential applicants an authentic perspective into college life.

"We essentially decided to let Colby students do the talking," said Ruth Jacobs, who oversees the site. "In the age of YouTube and Facebook, if we don't give it to them, they will find it themselves."

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com.

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