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Applying to College Online

Some Schools and Students Find E-Applications Easy and Economical

NORMAL, Ala., — Four years ago, administrators at Alabama A&M State University embraced the newest tool in college admissions — the Internet. Looking for ways to enhance its appeal to potential candidates and recruits, the university launched a Web site that has enabled students to complete and submit their applications electronically.
“We knew where technology in education was going,” says Antonio Boyle, the university’s admissions director. “Computers were going to be everything for students. So, for us not to be on the cutting edge of that would really be shooting ourselves in the foot.”
 The college-application process — at least the portion that requires students to fill in the blanks on multiple questionnaires — is going online. It’s an option that all sides find appealing. Where previous generations of college hopefuls labored on the family typewriter in an often counterproductive attempt to produce neat applications, today’s Web-savvy students are finding they can zoom through the “paperwork” with point-and-click ease of the Internet. Admissions offices see that electronic applications can save time and money by reducing the amount of data entry they have to do. There are even several Internet start-up companies, such as CollegeLink and CollegeEdge that foresee a profit in brokering applications from students to colleges.
Research shows that nationally, there is high student interest in online applications. Though still a fairly new option, electronic applications already are preferred by around 24 percent of students who apply to college, according to a 1998 survey by the Baltimore-based Art & Science Group Inc., a college consulting firm. Among historically Black institutions, about a dozen schools offer electronic applications on their campus Web site. The schools that do, ranging from Alcorn State University to Xavier University, have found the option easy to use and popular with some students.
Nevertheless, a shadow, cast by a reportedly growing, racially-based digital divide, looms over the role of electronic applications in the recruitment of African American students. About half of Black American households are as likely as White and Asian households to have a home computer or a connection to the Internet according to the U.S. Commerce Department’s recent Falling Through the Net report.
As a result, Black students have less access to the convenience and opportunities electronic college applications offer. Undeterred by such statistics and aware of the benefits that electronic applications offer, a few Black colleges are finding ways to use the option to reach out to students.
When Alabama A&M launched their Web site in 1995, they included an electronic application in its design, an addition so simple it “probably only took five minutes,” according to Boyle. The online form directly mirrors their paper application, asking the exact same questions with students typing their answers in boxes where they would usually fill in the blank. The difference with the online application is that once they have finished filling it out, students merely click the pointer on the submit button, and seconds later, it’s received by the admissions office. Boyle says the site averages between 500 and 1,000 hits and 12 applications submitted a day.
A&M has since found the advantages electronic applications offer admission offices to be considerable. Electronic applications mean less paper to mail, track, sort, file, and store. E-applications also can save schools time and money by reducing or eliminating the amount of data they have to enter, the difference of an employee taking two to three minutes to input a student’s application versus 15 seconds or less to download one.
 “The online application is actually cheaper for us,” Boyle says. “It saves me the man-hours in data entry.”
For University of Maryland-Eastern Shore, which began offering an online application about three years ago after many students requested it, the online application option has been equally advantageous, according to admissions office administrative assistant Tina Cottman. Since the college is part of Maryland’s public university system, the state established and maintains the Web site students use to apply to UMES. Cottman only has to log onto the system once or twice a day to get the applications.
“It actually takes less than five minutes,” she says.
Both Alabama A&M and UMES report enthusiastic student response to their electronic application options.
“The students love it because they realize, ‘I don’t have to fill this out with a pen,'” Boyle says.
At the University of Dayton, a small, Catholic college in Ohio that launched its online application three years ago, about 49 percent of the students who applied for admission to the college did so through the online option, according to Associate Provost Chris Muñoz. In a few more years, Dayton’s admission office, which waives the application fee for students who submit their information electronically, expects to see hardly any paper applications at all.
 “The norm is going to be electronic applications,” Muñoz says. “The exception will be the paper applications.”
HBCUs that adopt the electronic admissions process will face a challenge in reaching these numbers because of the reduced access African Americans and those who live in rural communities have to computers and the Internet.
“We recognize that access is a problem for minorities,” Boyle says. “That’s why we focus on making our site as simple as possible, so even low-end computers can use it.”
During its annual Senior Day event, Alabama A&M sets up about 60 computers in its campus gymnasium that are logged onto the university’s Web site. Visiting high school students, who might not otherwise have convenient computer access, can fill out online applications while on their campus visit. Boyle also carries a laptop computer with him while on the road for recruiting trips. Potential applicants can use the laptop to submit their forms on the spot. At UMES, the admissions office has found that students who do not have home computers have ready access to computers in their schools and public libraries as an alternative, Cottman says. 

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