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Point, click, match

Prospective freshmen gravitate toward networking websites to help winnow options - and colleges are quick to follow

By Peter Schworm
Globe Staff / December 14, 2008
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The cumbersome college guidebook, with page after page of statistics-heavy summaries, is creaking under its own weight, and the glossy brochure is increasingly consigned to the wastepaper basket like so much junk mail.

Instead, more high school students are pointing and clicking their way through the college search, tapping into an array of new matchmaking websites that pair them with prospective schools based on their personal preferences. And colleges, no longer content to cede the digital terrain to the teenage set, are also turning to the Facebook-like pages in their recruiting efforts.

The shift is reshaping the admissions process, long dominated by mass mailings and college fairs, into a virtual, yet highly personal, courting process many liken to online dating.

"In searching for a college, you have to make a lot of the same decisions that you would with relationships," said Jerry Slavonia, founder of Campus Explorer, which has a database of more than 6,000 schools.

Students are flocking to the sites, a mix of new social networking pages and traditional guides such as Peterson's and the College Board, to streamline the often overwhelming search for the right school. The sites allow them to sort colleges by location, enrollment, cost, and majors, and get an unedited glimpse of campus life by chatting with current students or browsing their photos and videos. At many sites, students can get an estimate of their admission chances by entering their grades and standardized test scores.

"This is the anti-glossy brochure," said Evan Steinberg, founder of Check My Campus, a college search site that features photos and videos from college students. "It's a student-friendly environment where high school students are already spending a lot of time each day."

Sophie Duncan, a senior at Newton North High School who used Steinberg's site in her college search, said hearing the students describe their college experience was more authentic than listening to campus tour guides.

"It's almost as if you're talking to them," Duncan said.

At the same time, campus visits have been pivotal in helping her narrow her choices, she said. College officials caution that virtual campus tours and student videos are a poor substitute for visiting a campus and speaking with faculty and students in person. The online searches are useful starting points, they say, but students should ideally spend some time at a place before deciding whether to spend four years there.

More than 90 percent of students bound for four-year colleges now use a matchmaking site in their college search, according to a survey this year from Eduventures, a Boston higher education research and consulting company. More than 40 percent of students found college websites for the first time through Google and other search engines, the survey found.

The sites are free to students and generally earn money from advertising and subscriptions from colleges.

Colleges, which have traditionally paid standardized test organizations to help target prospective students, are also expanding their digital presence. They have jazzed up their websites with blogs and videos to appeal to Web-savvy students, and are increasingly joining them at matchmaking sites.

At such sites, loosely based on the Facebook model, students create private profiles with personal information, and then notify colleges they are interested in. This allows colleges to search students with certain grades, SAT scores, and demographic backgrounds, in the same way that students are hunting for them, then send personal e-mails to catch their attention.

The goal is a more affordable, efficient system that allows students and schools, in keeping with the matchmaking metaphor, to find each other.

"The old way, students didn't know certain schools existed, and schools didn't know where to find the students," said Craig Powell, president of ConnectEDU, a Boston-based site that links high schools and colleges. Where many profile sites are student-run, ConnectEDU allows colleges to view high school grades with students' permission. Colleges can then express interest, like requesting a friend on Facebook.

The slumping economy and a projected decline in high school graduates is adding urgency to colleges' e-recruiting efforts. Compared with cross-country recruiting visits and bulk mailings, online outreach is a high-reward, low-risk venture.

"It lets colleges target those niche audiences much more cost-effectively than before," said Chris Long, president of Cappex.com, a matchmaking site with 650,000 student profiles. For example, by punching in a few criteria, a Northern liberal arts college could generate a list of female students from the South interested in engineering, he said.

For colleges, the new approach is a far cry from mailing out brochures and hoping students return a pre-stamped postcard.

"It's allowing us to live in their environment," said Ryan Munce, vice president of the National Research Center for College & University Admissions, which runs mycollegeoptions.org, a popular matchmaking site. "It really pays dividends, and colleges are moving this way quickly."

The growing popularity of college search and networking pages has probably furthered the increase in the number of students who apply to colleges without any prior contact, known as "stealth applicants" in college admissions offices.

"Their traditional marketing campaigns aren't reaching these students," Long said.

At Boston University, for example, the number of such applicants has risen 46 percent in the past four years.

In the face of such trends, colleges are burnishing their digital image, creating more customized, interactive sites. Last month, BU unveiled a new admissions website that features fast-paced videos of students discussing campus life, students' daily schedules, and a sign-up link to receive more information and updates.

"If you can't bring the student to campus, you have to bring the campus to the students," said Stephen Burgay, BU's vice president for marketing and communications. "Increasingly, students are finding out about us on their own terms, in their own medium."

Yet what students are looking for in a college hasn't changed, Burgay and others say. Students today have immediate access to a wealth of information, but in many ways are searching for an intangible - the feeling that this is where they belong. "They want to know what it's like to be there," Burgay said. "And they want to hear it from other students, not someone in a suit."

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

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