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Internet 101: Applying Online

Online admissions processes are gaining acceptance at colleges around the nation. While the benefits to the schools are indisputable, are students really willing to put their lives online?

by / November 30, 1998
The Internet has proven valuable in many areas of education, from expanding learning opportunities in the classroom to keeping teachers updated on the latest educational topics. Lately, the Internet is even being explored as an administrative tool to help streamline processes, reduce costs and decrease labor requirements. Online admissions applications are being used by an increasing number of colleges to reinvent the time-intensive admissions process schools have struggled with for decades.

According to CollegeEdge, a San Francisco firm that provides Internet-based admissions tools to colleges, online applications are rapidly gaining popularity. CollegeEdge said it processed more than 500,000 admissions-related transactions in the 1997-1998 season. Of those, more than 100,000 were online admissions applications.

"This paradigm shift to online admissions is [evident in the] exponential growth in the use of our online services," said Young Shin, president of CollegeEdge. "The process is both time- and cost-effective for students and admissions departments."

One of the biggest advocates of online admissions is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT made headlines recently when it announced it would require all admissions applications to its Sloan School of Management to be submitted via the Web.

According to the Graduate Management Admissions Council, a nonprofit group representing more than 100 of the world's top business schools, Sloan is the first to accept only online applications. The process is expected to save MIT thousands of dollars and work hours in staff time, processing and printing.

Online Advantages

Besides the savings, online admissions also make the difficult and complicated admissions process easier to manage. "It takes an enormous amount of time to process applications -- from opening them to logging them to stapling the different pieces, preparing them, keying in the information, et cetera," said Rod Garcia, director of admissions at MIT. "In fact, it takes longer to process an application than to actually read it."

Using a new program called GradAdvantage, MIT is able to download applications sent via the Web directly into its admissions database, thereby saving an enormous amount of time.

"It gives us more time to actually read and evaluate applications," Garcia said. "Using this, we hope to spend less time handling and processing applications and more time reading them and perhaps even meeting with applicants."

Allison Davis, assistant director of admissions at Stanford University's business school, agreed. "Because we don't have to re-key information, we're able to save an enormous amount of time. That's the real promise for us in terms of internal operations."

The online process also helps track applications. "We can get an instant and accurate count of the number of applications we have," Davis explained. "I can even log in from home and get a current count of how many we have in. In terms of managing the volume, there are some real advantages there."

Willing and Able?

Just because online admissions are helpful to schools doesn't mean students will be willing -- or able -- to use them. While a recent study by a group of Georgetown MBA students revealed that 94 percent of polled MBA students would have preferred to apply online if that option had been available, other surveys contradict that finding.

A survey done last summer by Art & Science, a higher-education marketing company based in Baltimore, found that, while students rely on the Web for college information, their enthusiasm for online applications has actually decreased from a year ago. When asked whether they prefer paper applications, online applications or disk-based applications, only 21 percent said they preferred online applications. "In 1997, we predicted the paper application was doomed," wrote Richard A. Hesel, author of the study. "This year's data suggests that we might have been a bit premature."

Art & Science says the vast majority of students are not applying to college online. At San Diego State University, where online applications have been available for a few years, only 4 percent were submitted online for the 1998-99 school year. Art & Science did note, however, that that was an increase from just 2 percent the year before.

Security and confidentiality seem to be the most common reasons behind students' lack of excitement toward applying online. "I'd worry about technical difficulties, privacy and also that maybe a college wouldn't take the online application as seriously as a traditional paper application," said Todd Mitchell, a San Diego State University undergrad.

But even if students are willing to use online applications, it doesn't necessarily mean they have the access to the Internet required to do so. "For us, there are some real equity and access issues because about 40 percent of our applicants are from outside the United States," Stanford's Davis said. "We also get some applicants from developing countries and Third-World countries, so I doubt we would ever absolutely forbid a paper application."

But Garcia said he didn't consider lack of access much of a problem at MIT. "Considering that most potential Sloan School students are working professionals, and computers are becoming more and more common in the workplace, most people will have access," he said. "If it is a problem, they can always go to any university and use the computer labs there."

Whose Side are They On?

Some groups have questioned wheth-er universities are implementing online admissions procedures in an attempt to be convenient for potential students, or simply to make life easier when it's crunch time in the admissions office. Although schools admit that the time and money savings are attractive, they also maintain that their students will benefit.

"I think there are a lot of benefits to the applicant in terms of being able to work on an application when they're traveling or on the road," Davis said, noting that the process allows students to save their work with a password and then return to it at a later date.

"Being able to deal with an application without trying to get a typewriter lined up correctly or slopping White Out all over the place has got to bring down the stress level," said Garcia.

Both Davis and Garcia said the feedback they've received from students thus far has been generally positive. "Only about 10 percent of our applicants used [online applications] this year, which wasn't a huge number," Davis said. "But the ones that did use it said they liked it."

Although only time will tell whether online admissions become a success, the fact that so many colleges are implementing the process will at least give students a choice, even if they do opt for the old multipage paper application. "I think there is a period of time required for people to get comfortable with the online application process," Davis said. "After all, it's one thing to request an application via the Web and quite another to send your precious essays off into cyberspace."

Garcia said he was surprised he didn't face more opposition when MIT has made the online application mandatory at the Sloan school.

"We've only heard from two people who said it wasn't a good idea," he said, adding that the protests were more than a little ironic: "Both those messages came via e-mail."

Justine Kavanaugh-Brown is editor in chief of Government Technology's sister publication, California Computer News.

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