Brave New Search

Today’s college reviews can make or break application rates
by Lidey Heuck
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As new technology and methods of communication develop at an exponential rate, no one stays more current than teenagers. Before parents realize that posting their kids’ baby pictures on Facebook is inappropriate or that using Twitter to detail their daily routines is embarrassing, teenagers have long since moved onto to something new.


During the college application process, high school students’ reliance on online sources should come as no surprise. After all, the Common Application, accepted by most colleges in the United States, strongly recommends that students complete the online version. And now, students check their SAT scores and their college acceptances online. So much for the ominous “small envelope” that used to sit, unopened, on the kitchen counter in early April. When the time comes to narrow down choices, high school seniors turn to the information source they know best: the Web.

Parents, however, are decidedly uncomfortable with relying on online sources for accurate information, and this difference makes for an interesting and multi-​faceted college process. Paul-​James Cukanna, director of admissions at Duquesne University, understands the importance of reaching both groups. “Kids trust the Internet more, but you have to reach the parents, too — the mothers play a big role. Smart enrollment managers know there are so many tools you have to use. It’s all about integration.”

The array of media through which college admissions offices can reach potential students creates both an opportunity and a challenge. “You have to know what students are utilizing,” says Sheri Betts, director of admission at Seton Hill University. “You really have to be aware of all the resources that are available.” Whether that means reaching potential students through letters, college fairs, blogs, or Facebook sites, admissions counselors stay up-​to-​date on the most effective recruitment methods.

Admissions counselors, however, cannot control third-​party sources that publish their own rankings and reviews of schools. Jennifer Winge, director of admissions at Allegheny College, believes that these can be useful resources, but warns against trusting “guides that are in the business of creating edgy reviews or publishing trendy information. Though most guides ask for a lot of student input, others take just a few and shape the responses in their own way. Sometimes that doesn’t present a full picture.”

Pittsburgh-​based “College Prowler” is one such source that admissions officers mention. Consisting of a smattering of student reviews and a “report card” that grades each school on qualities such as student attractiveness, drug scene and nightlife, “College Prowler” publishes uncensored and provocative reviews. Its Web site boasts, “Everything you read in our books, on our blog, and on our Web site comes straight from the current college students and recent grads. No half-​truths. No university affiliations.” In other words, “College Prowler” doesn’t euphemize or tiptoe around delicate subjects. “Your dorm hall will probably reek of beer and weed,” it said of one New York liberal arts college. Another review, rating students’ looks at a Pittsburgh university said, “students will unabashedly tell you that their campus is not an attractive one.”

When sources such as “College Prowler” reflect on a school positively, “it’s nice to have a third party validating what we’re saying,” said Dr. William Edmonds, director of admissions at California University of Pennsylvania. On the other hand, negative reviews can turn students off to schools, often unjustifiably. By relying on the more traditional college guides, as well as official college Web sites, and using third-​party guides as a supplement, high school students can gain an accurate and well-​rounded impression of their prospective colleges.

Organizations such as The Princeton Review and College Board provide fact-​based information with few embellishments, allowing students to determine a school’s location, academic programs and enrollment statistics. Because these guides typically gather information from universal data sources such as the federally sponsored IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System), colleges trust their accuracy and recommend them to students. Admissions officers, however, note several key problems with the guidebooks. “The guides almost by definition are flawed,” explains Mike Frantz, director of enrollment at Robert Morris University. “Higher institutions are dynamic places — student body and programs change every year. So these guides quickly become out of date.” While traditional information sources can provide students with basic information, they have a limited ability to provide students with a real sense of the school. And that is exactly what today’s high school students want.

With the rising cost of post-​secondary education, both parents and students want to know what universities will offer in return for annual costs often exceeding $50,000. Though academic programs and location were once the deciding factors, “today’s student needs to go beyond statistics; they want to get a feel for a school beyond the basic facts — to understand the social life and atmosphere,” says Robin King, senior vice president for enrollment and University Relations at Waynesburg University. “Colleges understand that, unless they provide prospective students with this kind of information, the students will turn to less reliable third-​party sources to find it.”

Here lies the foundation of the college Facebook site, Twitter page, student-​written blog and YouTube channel. College admissions offices have plunged head-​first into the world of social media, much to the chagrin of high school students who might prefer to keep their social life private from their prospective application readers. On the other hand, the personal relationship these resources can build between colleges and high school students attracts those students looking for more than a few postcards or bumper stickers. Chatham University’s social-​media-​oriented recruitment methods have seen tremendous success, and the school continues to expand the angles through which it reaches potential students. Chatham uses Twitter to post information about upcoming local events, has a YouTube channel with student-​made videos, and has a Facebook page full of resources for both students and prospective students. Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Lisa Meyers, explains, “Social networking sites are really big in terms of getting students interested in visiting the campus. Once they see Chatham, they’re often hooked.”

Easy access not only to high school seniors, but also to juniors, sophomores, and freshmen, allows colleges to “hook” students at an earlier age and also encourages high school students to begin shopping around earlier. “We’ve always tried to be proactive in getting out to students at an earlier stage,” says Brenda Thompson, director of admissions at West Virginia University. “Nationally, we’re finding that students are doing a lot of research on WVU without letting us know. That just shows the necessity of having a good Web site, so that students can find what they’re looking for on their own.” And what are the students looking for? “The major is the most important, but it’s not enough. Students are looking at what’s offered socially and what on-​campus organizations are available. It’s all about the personal fit.”

At a time when the national number of college applications has passed its peak, schools are planning for the future accordingly. Southwestern Pennsylvania schools have an even more challenging path ahead, as college admissions offices predict a decline in the number of local high school graduates. “Our steel millers and miners have taken a big hit in employment — jobs are moving east, west and offshore,” said Cal U’s Edmonds. “Parents go where work is and take their children with them.” Edmonds and his counterparts at other area colleges believe the key to maintaining high numbers of applicants lies in expanding their recruitment base. “We want to be proactive instead of reactive. We’ve broadened our scope to include New Jersey, New York, and especially eastern Pennsylvania — visiting high schools, attending college fairs, because that’s where the growth is. So far we’ve been very successful.” Cal U has also hired a Hispanic recruiter in anticipation of a higher number of minority applicants.

Duquesne’s Cukanna also foresees an increase in minority students, as well as an increase in adult students. “We started 10 years ago to cultivate new markets, focusing on the southwestern U.S. Even in certain areas where the number of students isn’t declining, we might have more minority students who need remediation. Their preparation isn’t always as good. At the same time, we’ll have more nontraditional learners by 2020 and big increases in non-​traditional age students.”

An increase in the number of non-​traditional-​age students means an increase in non-​traditional college exploration methods, and colleges do extensive research to understand the best way to reach these potential students. While guidebooks remain popular among college applicants of high school age, the books “tend to be used by students from higher socioeconomic levels and from the higher end of the academic scale,” says Jonathan Potts, director of public relations at Robert Morris University. However, colleges will continue to pay for inclusion in such publications as the Princeton Review, because, as Seton Hill’s Betts explains, “Those guidebooks are in guidance counselors’ offices across the country. You don’t want to not be in them.” But the real future for college admissions offices is one that will attract both traditional high school seniors and older adults who want to finish their college education or begin anew.

Since social networking has become popular with both demographics, colleges see it as the key to successful recruitment. Along with well-​developed Web sites of their own, a school’s presence on sites such as Facebook and Twitter allows it to distribute extensive multimedia packages at virtually no cost. By providing potential applicants with the student perspectives they want, colleges can balance the influence of unreliable third-​party sources.

We have to be selective about how many questionnaires we complete for independent organizations like these, as they tend to proliferate and the benefits to us are impossible to measure,” says Bonnie Ore, senior associate director of admissions at the University of Pittsburgh, where online applications now exceed those on paper.

At some point, there’s a limit to how many avenues prospective students and universities can or should navigate on this new superhighway of admissions info. And, as Ore says, there’s still no better guide for would-​be students than the most old-​fashioned of all: planting their feet on a campus, asking some questions and seeing how it feels.


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