Giving the Web the New College Try
By Liz Seymour, Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday , March 28, 2000 ; A11
During his junior year at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Tim Cassedy-Blum sat down with his laptop computer and
began his college search.
He rummaged through the Web sites of selective colleges, hunting for schools that interested him. He reviewed online course
catalogs. He found out which schools would give him credit for his Advanced Placement science class. He scanned student
He wasn't impressed by Wesleyan University's Web site. ("It wasn't organized well, and the admissions page isn't quite up to
par.") But he liked the feeling he got at the Web site of Duke University in Durham, N.C., with its rotating photos of campus
activities and architecture.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to apply" to Duke, said Cassedy-Blum, 18 and now a senior at Whitman. "But then I took a look at the Web site, and that convinced me that I probably wanted to apply there."
Never mind the glossy brochures and fat guidebooks. In the high-stakes competition for applicants, the key recruiting tool of
many colleges these days is an informative and eye-catching Web display.
"I don't know of anybody who applied to a college without checking out their Web site," said Cassedy-Blum, who already has
been accepted at New York University and the University of Michigan.
A recent survey of 10,000 high school students found that college Web sites ranked third on their list of most important sources of information about a school, surpassed only by a campus visit and a conversation with a current student.
The Web not only is more efficient than a mailing in providing basic information on a college's academic programs, but it also
can convey a richer, more intimate picture of what it would be like to attend the school.
Besides taking the virtual campus tour, which is standard on most of the sites, prospective applicants can e-mail questions to
professors, see which lecturers are making visits and read student testimonials.
Meet Ashley, a freshman at the State University of New York at Buffalo. School officials gave video cameras to her and eight
other students, asked them to videotape their lives over several days and posted the images on the Web alongside their
comments. "UB has an amazing Theatre and Dance program, with faculty who push you to master your craft," reports Ashley,
who hopes to be a Broadway star one day.
College admissions officials are quick to acknowledge that the content and design of a Web site are crucial to honing a school's image.
"Students use the Web. The job of the recruiter is partly to meet students where they are," said Stephen M. Farmer, the senior
assistant dean of admissions at the University of Virginia.
U-Va. officials, aware that their school is sometimes criticized for being too big, attempt to prove otherwise by showing on the
Web how many students are actually enrolled in particular classes.
The message at Vassar College's site: hip, irreverent, New York. High-schoolers can e-mail questions to current Vassar
students by double-clicking on the link "Ask Betty & Rex." They can find a list of Vassar bragging rights. ("Hey, your
grandmother has one. Why can't we?")
"Some of it's a bit hokey, but it works. And kids appreciate that tone," said David M. Borus, dean of admissions and financial
aid at the liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He said the number of students who first learned about Vassar through its
Web site doubles each year.
Some sites share little information about the location of the school, while others flaunt their college's address. Smack in the
middle of the home page for American University are photos of the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol dome.
"That's very important to the students who come here," said Kate Spencer, director of marketing for the school's admissions
office. "All the surveys tell us location is everything."
Officials at Duke clearly are not interested in touting the accomplishments of the men's basketball team. Several recent visits to
the school's home page turned up not a single mention of the team. Instead, the site promoted a new institute on ethics and a
senior who won a Rhodes scholarship.
Sometimes the impression gleaned from the Web is misleading. The small photos and muddy colors in the virtual campus tour
of Amherst College, for example, do not capture the beauty of the western Massachussetts campus.
There are other drawbacks. Several high school students say the telephone is still the best way to get an immediate response to
a specific query. And no matter how edgy and well constructed a Web site is, it cannot give the full flavor of actually being on
"I don't think that Web sites will ever replace the campus tour," said Michael Stoner, vice president of new media at Lipman
Hearne, a Chicago-based marketing firm that designs Web pages for colleges and nonprofit groups.
But mailed brochures could reach extinction within five to 10 years, some admissions officers said.
The most common Web visitors are high school students. But in a sign of how competitive college admissions have become,
Duke's site offers tips to parents of seventh- to 10th-graders. Included in the advice: "Encourage your child to investigate the
websites of his/her favorite schools."
For news and online resources about getting into college and paying for it, go to The Washington Post's Web site and click on
"Education." And visit the site at 1 p.m. tomorrow to join a live online discussion about financial aid with Bill Ryan of the U.S.
Department of Education.