- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2009

For high school students, the road to finding the perfect fit with a potential college is no longer paved with minivans headed for a campus tour.

These days, college recruiters come to the students the way so much other media does - online. Tools in narrowing a student’s search are in the form of a dorm room 360-degree view, a YouTube clip of a fraternity party, a 3-D aerial-view tour of campus or slick videos produced by the university.

“Families are relying on this kind of stuff now more than ever,” says Bill McClintick, director of college counseling at Mercersburg Academy in Pennsylvania and president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Part of the reason for the reliance on online tools could be the economic downturn. Last summer and fall - high season for campus tours - gas prices were sky-high, which may have caused some families to reduce or condense the number of campus visits they made. Officials at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, for instance, reported a 23 percent dip in reservations for summer open houses and a 4 percent dip in campus visits overall.

In the end, prospective students usually will pay a visit to the school they plan on attending, Mr. McClintick says. While online tools are almost always a starting point, going in person still counts, he says. The student gets the real feel of the school when he or she sets foot on a campus, and smaller schools often track who has visited and note that student’s “level of interest” by whether he or she has been to the school.

With the increasing sophistication of online tools - both official and unofficial - the starting point for narrowing the options without leaving home is becoming easier and entertaining.

Chris Carson, president of Campus Tours (www.campus tours.com) a company that has created virtual tours for more than 400 colleges and universities, says about 85 percent of students interviewed in a Campus Tours survey said they started their college search online. Campus Tours can be found on the schools’ Web sites as well as the Campus Tours site, which gets 1 million unique visitors a year, Mr. Carson says.

Another one-stop shopping site is Collegiate Choice (www. collegiatechoice.com) which, for a small fee, offers online walking tours of nearly 400 schools.

Campus Tours segments are full of students strolling leafy quads and doing short video interviews about why they chose the engineering or fine arts program. Official campus pages, of course, leave out whether the quad is overrun with drunks at night and instead highlight homecoming weekend in a multimedia production.

“Essentially, schools are competing with one another for the same students,” Mr. Carson says. “They need a compelling and articulate video. We tell schools if you don’t have compelling multimedia, [the students] will find it somewhere else.”

Andrew Flagel, dean of admissions at George Mason University in Fairfax, calls the competition for potential students’ attention “an arms race.”

“If the Web site is not attuned, you are never going to have the chance to get them on campus,” he says. Mr. Flagel notes that Web traffic to George Mason‘s site is up 71 percent and the number of in-person tours has remained steady.

Among the snazzy tools on George Mason’s Web site: “Mason Movies” are short video segments of everything from on-campus environmental projects to news about the sports team mascot.

The star of the site is “Mason Metro.” This section takes prospective students into a virtual-reality world designed much as the District’s Metro system, with an arts and entertainment line, an academic line and a D.C. line. The video segments are filmed by students.

“We want it to be believable, not just a smoke screen,” Mr. Flagel says.

At Johns Hopkins, meanwhile, students in the department of Student Technology Services have used Google Earth to create a 3-D virtual tour in which visitors can zoom in and out of buildings on the Homewood Campus.

“The whole notion for us is to make it a tool,” says Deborah Savage, John Hopkins’ IT manager of Student Technology Services. “If you live in China and your relatives can’t see where you go to school, they can feel like they are visiting it online. Eventually, we’ll have access to classes [through the site] and a GPS that can take you on the best route from hall to hall.”

Sometimes, though, the most honest information comes from unofficial sources. Students interested in the University of Maryland can use YouTube to find student-uploaded clips of everything from paint-ball games to tips on surviving the first semester. (The coin-operated laundry machines always are broken; bring lots of socks, you will lose them everywhere.)

Mr. Flagel of George Mason says in the end, university officials can’t control what is out there and what it says about their school.

“Unofficial videos on YouTube can be an advocate and positive voice for the students and faculty,” he says. “As long as the clips are not of things that are risky or illegal, then it is part of student life. Institutions that try and clamp down will just harm themselves. Blogs and videos are a snapshot of campus. We have a tendency to underestimate students and their desire for interaction with their campus.”

Mr. McClintick says he tells his students to look at a variety of sources. Take a little from the sentimental footage of a fall football Saturday, a little from the blog post by a disgruntled senior, a little more from a no-nonsense photo tour that shows just how long the walk is from the main campus to the freshman dorms, and a little more from an in-person overnight visit.

“I say use sites to prioritize,” he says. “Don’t let any one experience paint your picture of an entire school. What you don’t get online is the feel of a drive down main street or through the off-campus neighborhoods. It is hard for anything to capture an entire experience that’s only centered on the campus itself.”

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