Colleges Going High-Tech To Recruit Students
Colleges that rely on glossy brochures and videos to sell their institutions are beginning to seem as outdated as feathered hair and neon-colored clothes. The new style calls for shifting marketing efforts to the Internet, using "virtual" tours, personalized e-mail newsletters, and online admissions.
While most colleges and universities have had World Wide Web sites for some years now, they're overhauling them to make them interactive—a strategy that recruiters hope will allow them to spend less money to attract more capable students.
"Colleges and universities will not abandon the person-to-person aspect of recruiting, but I think they will try to determine how close they can get to that using the technology of the times," said Frank Burtnett, the president of Education Now, an independent consulting firm in Springfield, Va., that advises institutions of higher education.
Harnessing current technology makes sense because of the extent to which prospective students use the Internet, according to a telephone survey of more than 500 high school students released last week by Embark.com, a San Francisco-based company that sells recruitment software.
More than 90 percent of the surveyed students, all of whom were bound for four-year colleges, have access to the Internet both at home and at school, and they spend an average of more than seven hours a week surfing the Web, the report says.
And 15 percent said they used the Web as their primary source of information in deciding where to apply, a larger proportion than those who cited college "viewbooks" or brochures, college catalogs, or campus visits. The top source of information was guidance counselors, cited by 20 percent of the respondents.The quality of the students who use the Web to explore their options for college should also make them attractive to recruiters, Mr. Burtnett said. Such students, he said, tend to be academically stronger and more entrepreneurial than those who don't.
"The Internet is going to change the way that colleges sell themselves," said Kenneth E. Hartman, an assistant professor of instructional technology at Widener University in Chester, Pa., who has written an Internet guide for college-bound students. "While technology is a big threat to the counseling profession, there's only one thing that's a bigger threat—that's the status quo."
Virtual tours via the Web, which provide a series of still or moving images highlighting buildings and events coupled with text, are one of the most sophisticated new recruitment tools.
Bucknell University, a private institution in Lewisburg, Pa., is one of several schools now offering a real-time "webcam" on its Web site. The screen shows a 24-hour, live image of the academic quad; prospective students can scan the scene to the left or right or zoom in on any action. The site also includes panoramic videos of 20 landmarks around campus, including living quarters in dormitory rooms, the research area of the library, and snack shops.
The State University of New York at Buffalo, meanwhile, "introduces" prospective students to nine current students through a segment on its Web site called "Visit My Life." Users can click on a student's pictured face to read and listen to his or her comments on college life. Video clips that incorporate sound depict classes in session, extracurricular activities, and dormitory events.
"We're hoping that [high school] students can connect with the experiences of currently enrolled students," said Carmela Thompson, the associate director of admissions at SUNY-Buffalo. "We've moved away from traditional routes with publications and Web sites about academic experiences because it wasn't what attracted students or held their attention."
Some schools are developing e-mail lists and newsletters targeted to individual students—a strategy known as "one-on-one marketing." For example, prospective biology majors who are also interested in literature at Providence College, a private school in Providence, R.I., can receive information specifically on those subjects, said Brian G. Williams, the associate dean of admission.
"We are sensitive to the bombardment of information students receive through the Web, so we deliver them information they need when they need it," Mr. Williams said. "In essence, they can build a profile and play the role of that type of student on campus. They can get a feel for what being a student here would be like."
Many institutions are also offering online admissions, which makes applying to college easier for students and less time-consuming for staff members, said Mike Kennedy, the vice president of marketing for Lamb Technologies, a company based in Fairfax, Va., that has developed online forms used by several institutions around the nation.
"It made it a lot easier because I could make mistakes, go back, and correct them," said Lee De Leon, 18, of Houston, who applied to nine colleges over the Internet and will attend the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in the fall. "You don't have to worry about your handwriting. It is a lot cleaner and neater."
Other colleges are trying out videoconferencing as a substitute for face-to-face meetings.
This spring, students from several high schools in New Jersey and Pennsylvania gathered at a high school in Cherry Hill Township, N.J., to "meet" with counselors from six public and private colleges and universities.
"We're a state school, and we recruit primarily in Virginia," said David E. Trott, the associate dean of admission at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., one of the institutions that participated in the videoconference. "This is a great way to recruit out of state without leaving campus."
Despite such innovations, some technologically adept students say colleges could still do more.
"My dad made me look at all of the Web pages before we went to visit colleges, and there was some interesting stuff," said Peter Davies, 18, who will attend Bucknell as a freshman this coming fall. "But I'm pretty into computers so there wasn't really anything new and exciting."
The "digital divide" between students who have access to computers and those who lack it no longer appears to be a problem for most college-bound seniors, according to the survey by Embark.com. Every student interviewed reported that he or she had access to a computer either at home or at school. Five percent of students reported that they lacked a computer at home; 2 percent said they did not have access to a computer at school.
Nevertheless, many colleges say they are wary of excluding anyone, and plan to continue making informational visits to high schools and using paper recruiting materials. Some schools are even promising to take technology directly to students or ensure that it is in place in the community.
"In rural northcentral West Virginia, we spend a lot of time working with kids living in small remote towns," said William R. Haden, the president of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W. Va. In May, the college became the first in the country to require that all of its prospective students apply online. "We know we can take laptops to them. Or, because we are affiliated with the United Methodist Church, they can go to churches where they have access. We've concluded that we can reach people."
Vol. 19, Issue 40, Page 5