College Fairs: Savvy Searches and Serendipity
Mark Clayton, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
With his buddies Aaron and Kyle on either side, 17-year-old Jeremiah Johnson cruises down the aisles of this national college fair like a battleship with escorts, prowling for the right school.
At six-foot-five, 267 pounds, young Mr. Johnson is a physical presence, pushing against a tide of smaller students swirling in his wake as he moves from booth to booth.
Johnson, who plays tackle and puts the shot for Palmer (Mass.) High School, has two key requirements for a college: a football program (read, athletic scholarship) and an engineering program. There's a good chance he'll satisfy both with information gleaned from this fair, one of hundreds where American higher education hawks its wares.
College fairs are a staple of the spring college-admissions season - that semichaotic time of year when jumpy high school juniors, straggling seniors, and harried parents try to sift the 4,000-plus institutions of higher learning for the one perfect school.
The college hunt is increasingly supplemented online. And then there's the ubiquitous summer college visit. But the logical middle step between Internet search and college visit involves the personal touch of an admittedly brief one-on-one meeting between student and admissions rep at a college fair.
This, perhaps, explains college fairs' growing appeal since they got going in the early 1970s. This year, more than 425,000 students are expected to visit 440 fairs sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) based in Alexandria, Va., which hosts more college fairs than any other group. That's a 30 percent jump from attendance last year, officials say.
"You shop for a car on the Internet, but eventually you have to go in to the dealership to see if it's what you actually want," says Gregory Ferguson, director of national college fairs for NACAC. "I think parents and students look at searching on the Internet in the same manner. Face to face is important."
That's what's happening here in Springfield, Mass., as smiling representatives from more than 230 colleges and universities stand and deliver to Mr. Johnson's three quick questions: Engineering? Football? Football scholarships? With an affirmative to all three, Johnson pauses so the rep can slip a glossy brochure in the plastic bag he carries.
"I'm looking at places from Hawaii to Newfoundland, but I don't really care where I go - just so it's far away from here," the scholar-athlete says. "My only other requirement is, it's got to have rolling hills to look out at when I'm stuck in a cubicle doing my homework. …