Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

Taking College Fairs Online: With the Obvious Advantages of Saving Time and Money, Colleges Are Finding That Online Fairs Can Help Recruit Students Efficiently. but There Are Obstacles to Overcome on the Web

Magazine article Matrix: The Magazine for Leaders in Higher Education

Taking College Fairs Online: With the Obvious Advantages of Saving Time and Money, Colleges Are Finding That Online Fairs Can Help Recruit Students Efficiently. but There Are Obstacles to Overcome on the Web

Article excerpt

When Gradschools.com, a comprehensive online directory produced by Educational Directories Unlimited, decided to host a virtual college fair in conjunction with a live fair, it seemed like a natural, especially considering the role technology is starting to play in recruiting students.

In essence, the live event served as a studio. Every floor exhibitor received DSL connections, giving them the ability to broadcast on the Web to reach a larger audience.

But neither the live or virtual fair met anyone's expectations. People blamed the location of the event, the Pennsylvania Convention Center, for lack of attendance, but for the online fair, all explanations pointed to one thing: recruiters weren't ready to use the technology. Chat rooms, the format Gradschools.com used as the means to communicate, were foreign to many exhibitors.

"We took a survey of exhibitors and almost 40 percent said they had never used a chat room prior to this event, says Mark Shay, Gradschools president and founder. "It amazed me [because] this is a widespread medium for the younger generation."

Several exhibitors in the chat room would see a student come in, and then a minute later the student would leave.

"They came to me afterwards, and asked me why didn't they say anything?" Shay says. "I [said] if someone came up to you in your booth and you didn't respond, the student would walk away.

And despite Shay's warnings to check configurations for the Java-enabled chat rooms before the show, 5 percent of users had firewall problems at the start of the fair. "As a result we had several people who called 10 minutes before the event saying, `We have a firewall at our school and we can't download Java'" says Shay.

While Shay's first virtual fair wasn't a success, the medium holds enough promise that other organizations and schools will likely continue to pursue using this medium. Virtual fairs allow recruiters to make contact with students who are geographically hard to reach and can be less expensive than participating in a live event.

The Potential is There

Kelly Walters, director of admissions at Boston University, participated in Onlinecollegefair.com, a virtual recruiting program for undergrads sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling and Interaction software.

"We're fine tuning this" she says. "What's clear to me is that this is an opportunity for students who might not have contact with a representative of my staff to learn more about the university. From our experience, we were attracting students from Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, Utah and places we don't routinely visit. I know they have an opportunity for a one-on-one chat that they would never have had otherwise. I believe it will prove to be a very effective tool."

Onlinecollegefair.com has different pricing packages. The cost for members is $1,900 for five fairs and $2,400 for nonmembers. The cost to participate in a traditional fair is $415 for members, $615 for non-members.

"Of the 73 college fair programs we held this season, 10 of them were virtual/online fairs. We are increasing that number to 12 for our upcoming season, beginning on Sept. 11," says Michael McNutt, online coordinator for NACAC.

Shay still thinks virtual fairs are a good idea, although recruiters have been slow to accept them. Another thing he discovered is recruiters' patience for inactivity on the Web is much lower than in person. If they've committed to sit behind a booth and no one stops by for an hour, they won't leave. But put them in a chat room and have no one stop by for five minutes and they'll leave. "I took it for granted they were familiar with the technology," Shay says.

In January, he relaunched Gradschoolfairs.com as an interactive companion site to Gradschools.com featuring chat rooms and discussion boards to bring recruiters and students together. …

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