#collegesearch: The Digital College Search Revolution

Today’s college-bound students have grown up in a world dictated by technology. Their news is available in real time. They watch their favorite television shows and listen to their favorite radio stations through free apps on their cell phones. Students understand life in a digital age, and technology permeates every aspect of their lives, including the college search process.

Gone are the days where a student’s access to a college was limited to the print material they received, the phone calls they got, and/or campus visits. Today, a prospective student can jump onto the Internet and access information about the college’s academic programs, faculty, facilities, history, reputation, perception, price, athletics, student body, and any other information they might desire.

It is vital that students be aware of the digital resources they have at their disposal. There are great general sites such as CollegeRealityCheck.com, a product of The Chronicle of Higher Education, as well as the National Center for Education Statistics, ACT College Search, and many more (including CollegeXpress!). These sources allow students to gather and compare information such as:

  • Location—Where is this school? What else is around it?
  • Type—Is the school public or private? Is it a faith-based institution? Is it a two- or four-year college? A niche school such as an institute of technology or conservatory?
  • Majors—What academic programs are available?
  • Average Net Price—How much does the average student pay to attend? (Federal regulations require each individual school to make a Net Price Calculator available to students through their institutional website.)
  • Graduation Rates—How many students actually graduate in four to six years?
  • Debt Repayment and Earning—What are graduates earning, on average, in comparison with their debt repayment expectations?

These sites give students unfettered access to the information they want and need to identify the school(s) they should explore further. In fact, these resources may answer questions students didn’t even know to ask.

Virtual tours

As recently as 10 years ago, the best way for students to gather information from colleges was to fill out information cards by hand. Now, it’s all online. More and more, colleges use things like QR codes to make information immediately accessible, and QR reader apps are available for free on all smartphones. Though printed material will always have a place in college recruitment, students and colleges recognize the multiple benefits of digital information, putting the college search directly into students’ hands (and their pockets).

Once students have discovered those initial schools, there comes a need for experiencing them in depth. Numerous studies reiterate the importance of in-person college visits as the most influential piece of the college search. However, colleges are evolving their visit programs with changing technology. Today, many colleges offer a virtual tour so you can “walk the campus” while sitting at home in your bathrobe. There are also independent sites (such as eCampusTours, YouVisit, and YourCampus360) that allow students to tour multiple schools from all corners of the country. The innovations of Skype, FaceTime, and Google Chat allow students to have “face-to-face” interaction with staff/faculty/students from a given school without actually being face-to-face. What’s more, these resources are free! No buying a plane ticket, no staying at a hotel—you don’t even need to pay for the gallon of gas it would cost to drive across town. Is the experience the same as visiting in person? Not by a long shot. But virtual visits are a great introduction to a school and can free students up to visit campuses after they’ve been accepted and have narrowed their options.

Social media

Another digital college search resource is a result of a greater cultural phenomenon—the advent of social media. Facebook and Twitter have forever changed our culture, and the college search process has adjusted to this cultural transformation. Today’s college students exist in a world of social media that allows them to connect with people, places, things, and ideas that span the entire world. Facebook affords students the chance to explore the public face of a school (through institution-sponsored pages) as well as the shadow face of a school (unsponsored, yet affiliated, sites that communicate the student experience). In any case, these social media advances provide a unique voice to the college experience while allowing interested students to contextualize their search in a format with which they are comfortable.

Most schools are only beginning to scratch the surface of social media engagement. Schools tweet to prospective students and post YouTube videos ranging from the substantial to the inane to catch the eye, ear, mind, or heart of an interested student. Students and parents can explore the culture of a school via Facebook, once again, without ever visiting the campus. It is not unrealistic to see potential students become “friends” with current students of a school without ever actually meeting them. Social media allows students and their families the freedom to engage the good, the bad, and the ugly sides of any college they might consider at any moment.

Digital funding

Even the process of funding your college experience can be done digitally. Students can type the words “college scholarships” in any search engine to find listings a mile long of different resources to explore. Much like the general college search sites and virtual tour sites, there are various websites dedicated to making a comprehensive variety of scholarship resources available to students. Some are national sites (Fastweb.com, PrivateColleges.com) and some are state specific (in the state of Oregon, for example, one such site is GetCollegeFunds.org). There are hundreds of scholarships to be had, throughout all four years of school, as long as students take the time to open a Web browser and look for them! In most instances the entire process (search, application, and notification) can be done sitting on your couch.

Use your resources wisely

In your college search, you’ll have some incredible resources that add dynamic layers to your ability to explore the various colleges/universities that interest you. But, at the end of the day, they can’t and shouldn’t supplement the entire process. Just because students can research, apply to, and confirm admission to a school without ever interacting with it in person doesn’t mean they should. In a world where the digital reality is inescapable, it is vital not to lose sight of the tangible. All of these college search innovations are incredible complements to a process that, at its core, is meant to have a human component.

Here’s another way of thinking about it: imagine yourself buying a house. You will inevitably go to the Internet to research what’s out there. You’ll read all the specs about the year the house was built, the number of bedrooms and bathrooms, the square footage, and so on. You might even take virtual tours of the homes that appeal to you. That said, before you sign on the dotted line you will want—you will need—to actually walk through the house yourself. You’ll want to step inside to gauge if it actually feels like your home. In spite of the depth and breadth of virtual resources you have at your disposal, it is important that you remember that they are exactly that: Resources. Guideposts. And no exception to the real thing.

It amazes me how much the college search has transformed since I went through this process 13 years ago. Today’s college-bound students have countless resources at their disposal. They are not subject only to the information schools want them to have. Rather, the digital revolution gives them full and complete access to any school, at any time. These students have grown up in a world that has integrated technology as an essential function of life. They have never known life without the Internet. Their world is not bound by convention; rather, it’s been freed by innovation. Phones are not phones; they are portals of holistic information. Our communities are being constructed through a digital medium. The impact of technology is ubiquitous and certainly evident in the college search process. Students have access to endless information about practically every aspect of any school they might consider. Don’t take this reality for granted! Use these resources to create the future you want rather than simply accept the future you think you’ll get.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »