This year’s high school seniors may be wired and tech-savvy, but most of them will be applying to colleges the old-fashioned way: by mailing in paper applications.

Despite a hard sell from colleges and universities seeking to save money and reduce clerical mistakes, many students are so far shunning invitations to apply via the internet.

Schools are slowly breaking down psychological barriers; online applications are on the rise, as indicated by Nov. 1 and Nov. 15 deadlines for early decisions. Still, most observers expect paper to dominate for another five years or so.

The Class of 2005 hopefuls may be comfortable with technology for researching term papers and buying clothes, but they don’t want to take a chance when it comes to colleges.

“We are going to be spending the next four years of our lives in college, and we want to make sure we get the application right,” said Guy Fain, a senior at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn.

By having an application in hand, Fain said, “I feel like I can get a better grasp of what I’m sending. I am getting the big picture.”

It doesn’t matter that many colleges and universities try to make online applications safe—for instance, by sending electronic receipts, which they don’t do with paper applications.

University of Pennsylvania freshman Eric Rothman submitted his application a year ago via certified mail, with return receipt.

“I’m pretty tech-savvy, and I use the internet a lot,” he said, “but for something like that, I want to make sure it got there.”

Some of the resistance comes from guidance counselors and parents who had applied on paper when they were younger. They fear that online applications won’t carry as much weight because students chose the easier route.

College admission officers, in their visits to college fairs and high schools, are trying to shatter those perceptions. They insist they consider online and paper applications equally.

“We wouldn’t offer it if we didn’t want to encourage its use,” said Nikki Brown, assistant admissions director at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

More than three-quarters of the nation’s colleges and universities now accept online applications, the National Association for College Admission Counseling estimates. Yet many schools reported that less than a third of last year’s applications came in via that route. Vassar’s rate was closer to 2 percent, while the University of Richmond got 5 percent. Most schools have been accepting online submissions for a few years.

More success has been seen at the University of Iowa, where 30 percent of its prospective freshmen applied online last year. Lewis & Clark College received 15 percent of its applications online last year, up from 9 percent in 1998, the first year of the program.

“As with anything new, it requires time,” said Young Shin, founder of Embark.com, which sets up online applications for about 400 undergraduate schools. “Soon, no one will remember we used to do this on paper.”

Many colleges still receive transcripts and teacher recommendations by mail, and most schools still print out online applications for their reviewers.

At the same time, they encourage online applications because they can feed data directly into computers that way. Many colleges are even waiving application fees to encourage online use.

Some schools consider online applications as a way to show off their technological capabilities.

West Virginia Wesleyan College, a liberal arts school in Buckhannon, W. Va., began requiring online applications this year. President William Haden wanted to send a message to prospective students: “If they came here, they would find their lives imbued with technology.”

California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo got 82 percent of applications online last year–up from 1 percent in 1992, when the school began taking applications on disk. Paper applicants are still asked to complete a questionnaire over the internet, and the information helps automate the acceptance process.

If students resist? “They won’t be competitive,” said James Maraviglia, executive director of admissions and recruitment.

Cal Poly, like the rest of the California State University system, emphasizes the ability to apply to multiple campuses with a single mouse click. The time savings was enough to persuade Sherri Greer to let her older son, Zachary, apply online.

“Within an hour, we were able to ship it off to five different schools,” said Greer, of San Jose, Calif. “I’m normally pretty old-fashioned.”

As more students embrace online applications, admission officials will have to address access. Some students have internet access only at their schools or public libraries, if at all, but such access isn’t as convenient as having it at home.

Will that place poorer students at a disadvantage, especially when a school requires online applications? West Virginia Wesleyan says his institution will try to dispatch laptop-toting officials when necessary, but the college won’t guarantee it.

David Boyle, college coordinator for Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill., also warns of carelessness.

“To compose an essay right on the internet site is to open yourself up to a lot of typos and grammatical errors,” he said. Students “have to be careful to realize they are not playing a game.”

At Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., college counselor Bob Brown recommends that students applying online mail in a printed application as well. Most of his students, though, are using only paper.

“A lot of these kids don’t have access to PCs at home, and in other cases are just finding it more convenient to do the old method,” Brown said. “At an organizational level, students are still far more comfortable working with a paper product.”

Links:

National Association for College Admission Counseling
http://www.nacac.com

West Virginia Wesleyan
http://www.wvwc.edu