Technology eases burden of college search
Long before the first tuition bill is due, families wrestle with the expenses of touring prospective colleges, which can carry a hefty tab depending on the extensiveness of a college search.
But thanks to technology, colleges are helping today’s high school students – a generation born and raised in the digital age – shrink those costs by conducting thorough searches without having to leave home.
“Technology is where the (college search) process begins now,” says Morgan Allen, assistant director of marketing for undergraduate admissions at the University of South Carolina.
College websites, along with social media (blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter), provide students with information, a glimpse into campus life and a chance to interact with admissions counselors and enrolled students, Allen says.
Summer is a great time for researching colleges, particularly for rising high-school seniors,” Allen says. “Also, the more selective schools will have early application deadlines in October.”
Allen says the best starting place for a college search is a college or university’s main website. That is where students will find links to important areas such as admissions, visitor centers, academic departments, student life, financial aid and housing.
While it sounds basic, Allen says too often students will bypass this primary portal and limit their virtual visit to only one facet of a college.
Denise Wellman, director of Carolina’s Visitor Center, says students should check out the size, proximity and location (urban or rural) of the campus, admissions standards, the breadth of majors available, cost and financial-aid opportunities, athletics, student organizations and enrichment opportunities, such as study abroad or undergraduate research programs.
The next step is to explore social media sites, which often give the student perspective on campus life. This part of the search process is second nature for tech-savvy teenagers, who send a billion texts daily, according to studies by the Pew Research Center, which provides information on issues and attitudes that shape society.
“One of the most popular social media tools is Facebook,” Allen says. “It offers a less commercial, more informal point of view about campus life and college that students really respond to.”
In addition to Facebook, most colleges use Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. Typically, undergraduate admissions offices also will have social media sites for communicating with prospective students.
Photo galleries, videos and virtual tours can bring a college campus to life. Facebook and Twitter provide students the opportunity to have real-time exchanges with admissions staff, students and alumni, a level of connectedness that teenagers have come to expect.
“Facebook is a way for students to interact with admissions staff after office hours when they (students) are most active, from 7 to 11 p.m.,” Allen says. “They see a Facebook page as an official presence and as useful as a phone call. Our staff monitors and responds to students’ posts frequently. If a question requires privacy, we ask the student to call us.”
Twitter is a successful tool that has amassed more than 1,290 followers since the undergraduate admissions office launched its account in March 2009. (@USCColumbia)
“Like texting, Twitter lets students pose short questions and gives us (admissions staff) the ability to provide reminders about deadlines or newsy tidbits about the university and what’s happening on campus right now,” Allen says.
Students can expect to see more colleges using technology creatively, Allen says. USC will offer video chats in the evening this fall.
While the college search should begin with technology, it should end with a visit to the campus.
“The most widely used source for college searches is the Web, but the most trusted source is the campus visit,” Wellman says.
“It’s so important for a student to walk across campus and pass by other students and faculty and have that opportunity to ask themselves, ‘Does this place feel like a place I could call home?’” Wellman says. “Students assume they know a college until they visit it. There is an emotional reaction to a college the moment you step foot on the campus. That’s something technology can’t simulate.”
At USC, prospective students are greeted by student ambassadors, a select group of 53 students who are carefully trained to lead campus tours. The ambassadors, who represent a cross-section of states, majors and student organizations, undergo 30 – 40 hours of training about the university, in which they learn about campus landmarks and history, areas of study, student organizations, services and opportunities for academic enrichment and helpful facts and figures.
Wellman encourages students to visit a minimum of three colleges and to space out campus visits so they can avoid information overload and have time to reflect. She also advises them to jot down their reactions and take photos to which they can later refer.
“Students need a point of comparison in order to make a decision that feels right,” Wellman says. “Students often are surprised that the college they didn’t expect to be a fit ends up being the perfect fit.”