Students, schools turn to virtual college fairs

Students, schools turn to virtual college fairs

As college fair season kicks into high gear, a growing number of students, parents, and colleges will be turning to virtual college fairs as a way to save money and increase exposure.

Students today are comfortable communicating online, giving them access to information and resources that otherwise might be unavailable to them. And for campus officials, virtual college fairs offer a way to reach a potentially larger number of students without adding travel costs.

Shannon Meairs, co-founder and chief executive officer of University Drive, a college admission consulting company, said when students are trying to decide where to begin in their search for a college, the first thing she tells them is to go online.

“Ideally, I would like a student to have a personal interaction with a college, but if a student is unable to visit the campus, a virtual college fair is the prime opportunity for students to connect with college reps,” she said.

Meairs said traditional college fairs are ideal because they leverage face-to-face contact, but virtual college fairs give students access to hundreds of universities without leaving the comfort of their home.

Not everyone sees virtual college fairs as a lesser alternative to traditional, face-to-face venues; some think they provide an even better experience for students.

Robert Rosenbloom, founder and chief executive officer of Platform Q, the company that produces CollegeWeekLive, said virtual fairs give students and parents a better chance at getting one-on-one time with higher-education officials.

“The value we bring is that we’re connecting the students with admissions officers, financial aid personnel, or current students. They connect live, either through text but usually through video chat,” he said.

“If you look at what happens at physical college fairs, they’re usually crowded, they send one representative who might not even be an admissions officer, and a student can ask maybe one question.”

Wartburg College plans to participate in its third CollegeWeekLive fair in November, something that allows the college to reach more students.

“It is relatively inexpensive and allows us to reach a more global audience then we can through traditional methods, like high school visits and regional college fairs,” said Todd Coleman, assistant vice president for admissions. “We [have] received great leads from the online fair and have a good number of prospects, parents, and high school counselors who visit our virtual booth for more information. The live student chat that we have done each year has really been a big winner for us, and our student [representative] never has enough time to answer all of the questions.”

Coleman said while the school’s participation in the virtual fairs is done in addition to attending local college fairs, it exposes them to students they normally would be able to reach.

“What this allows us to do is reach audiences that would normally cost us several thousand dollars to reach between the college fairs costs and travel expenses,” he said.

Rosenbloom said his company surveyed parents, students, guidance counselors, and admissions officers at traditional college fairs and learned they can present some problems.

Even if students and parents are able to speak one on one with a college’s representative, there are still some factors that could keep them from asking the questions they really want to ask.

“Students might not want to get specific about their GPA or SAT or ACT score if ten of their friends are standing nearby. And parents might not want to ask about financial aid in front of other parents,” he said.

When CollegeWeekLive launched in beta version in 2007, the service had 15,000 students and 80 schools participate in its two-day fall fair. The virtual fair is free to students and parents. This year, the service will have about 250 schools participate, with the fair lasting four days for this first time this fall.

The company also has expanded from offering only one fair a semester to offering regional fairs, as well as events that focus on test preparation and financial aid and a number of virtual open houses.

Mary A.C. Fallon, senior director of communications for StudentAid.com, one of CollegeWeekLive’s newest sponsors, said many colleges are attracted to the fair because of the large number of students they can reach.

“No doubt the reach this event gives colleges is a big attraction, because most college fairs are much smaller events in school cafeterias and gyms–and the numbers virtual college fairs attract could fill a stadium,” she said. “Given the anxiety students and parents have about rising college costs, shrinking [financial] aid budgets, and the desire to avoid a heavy debt burden, being able to talk online to students and parents live during this virtual college fair is a great opportunity to make a personal connection.”

Other virtual college fairs include one hosted by radio host Tom Joyner, which focuses on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Green College Tour.

Links:

CollegeWeekLive

Tom Joyner Virtual College Fair

Green College Tour