Colleges seeing more applications coming in over the Net

08/02/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By SUSAN McMAHON
Sun Staff

Ashley Nolet thought applying to her dream school online might give her a better shot of getting in.

But, for a week, she couldn't access the Web site from her home computer. And then the entire site went down completely for several days.

The glitches were enough for more than a few stressed-out sessions.

"I was a little more nervous doing it that way," said the Lowell High School senior. "I ended up getting everything in on time, so I'm hoping it's fine."

But despite possible technical problems and relative novelty of the process, more and more prospective college students are filing their applications online, spiriting essays and forms through the Internet rather than the mail.

The Princeton Review, which hosts online applications for more than 180 undergraduate colleges and universities, has seen the number of submissions jump from 29,000 in 1999 to 387,748 last year.

At UMass Lowell, which put an application online for the first time this year, more than half of all the applications received so far have been sent over the Internet.

The explosion of online applications began about three years ago, but they have been available at some colleges for about eight years. During last year's anthrax scare, universities began offering application-fee discounts to students who sent their applications through the Internet rather than the often-delayed mail.

For the universities, it's a quick, easy way to get the student's application information into their system. For the students, it's a paper-free, efficient method to get their applications to the schools.

And if students apply through a central service like the Princeton Review, they can fill out a form that automatically inserts basic information into all of a student's applications, saving time and typewriter ink.

"It's just so much easier to apply online," said Robert Franek, editorial director for the Princeton Review. "If you were going to apply to UMass Amherst and Amherst College, for example, you basically have to fill out the application one time. It's the only way a lot of kids are going to apply to college."

Universities have been going online at a frantic pace, with some using the Internet exclusively and others offering discounts to students who apply online.

UMass Lowell offered $10 off its application fee of $20 for in-state residents, $35 for out-of-state applicants. The goal is to get more students to apply through the Internet, cutting the need for middlemen to input the data into the university's system. With online applications, the information is automatically transferred into a college's database, leaving university personnel free to perform other tasks, and saving time and money.

As universities move online, school officials are working to bring the high schools up to date, foreseeing a future in which no part of a student's application will ever touch the mail.

"As universities become more electronic, the hope is that the high schools will catch up," said Lisa Johnson, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at UMass Lowell. "Some day, we could electronically receive transcripts and letters of recommendation. We could electronically process a student without needing a paper file in the not-too-distant future."

But technical kinks can still be a problem, and high schools should be drafting policies to address the possible missteps that could occur with online applications, some guidance counselors say.

Students can click the wrong boxes before sending in applications or a technical glitch could erase information.

Guidance counselors recommend printing out copies of an application before sending it for review, and calling after the application is sent to make sure the college received it.

"If you're doing it online, often you really don't have anybody helping you," said Lowell High School guidance counselor Nancy Humphrey. "I suggest they make a copy of what they've filled out and have someone look it over."

Despite some reservations about the process, the digital revolution is quickly transforming the way students apply to college. UMass Lowell is in the planning stages of putting together pilot programs with feeder schools to bring more of the application process online.

The paperless possibilities are endless.

"We see a lot of benefits down the road for everyone," Johnson said. "We're trying to get the word out to folks you will be reviewed more quickly, you'll be in the database sooner, and you will hopefully hear from us much more quickly than somebody that does not apply online."

Susan McMahon's e-mail address is smcmahon@lowellsun.com .